In the City of New York, parents are lining up by the thousands to enroll their children in public charter schools like Success Academy, attracted by the high levels of student achievement, the orderly classrooms and the increasing racial and economic diversity. This year, there were
seven applicants for every open seat in Success Academy’s 34 schools. According to a
study out of Stanford University, students at New York charter schools receive the equivalent of 24 extra days in reading instruction and an eye-popping 104 extra days of math instruction. The numbers are
even higher for Success Academy, where 94 percent of kids passed the state math test and 82 percent passed the reading test, compared to 36 percent and 38 percent statewide. Nevertheless, former high school principal Carol Burris, who is now working full-time with the Network for Public Education to roll back reforms like the Common Core State Standards and public charter schools,
argues that Success Academy schools push out weaker students and don’t pull their weight with special education kids. First of all, charter schools in New York have
lower attrition rates than traditional public schools according to WNYC. That means, for whatever reasons, charters keep more of their students each year while traditional schools lose them: some drop out, some transfer out, some move away and some just disappear. Second,
recent data shows that 10.4 percent of charter students are special education (SPED), slightly lower than the 12.5 percent in traditional public school. Success Academy, however, is about 16 percent SPED, which is just slightly below the New York City average. Either way, Burris’ critique raises some relevant questions:
Are traditional public schools over-designating students as SPED?
Are charter schools more likely to declassify SPED students and “graduate” them back to the mainstream?
Are parents of SPED students less likely to even apply to charters in the first place?
study from the pro-charter Manhattan Institute suggests that all three are a factor, but here’s the real question: why does it matter? There are lots of schools above and below the average. The important thing is getting results with the kids you have. Different schools serve different kids. Gifted schools serve gifted kids. Alternative schools serve troubled kids. A school that is really successful with children who have autism or a hearing impairment will likely serve more of them because parents will find that school and do everything in their power to enroll their child there. And charter schools like Success Academy with a strict discipline code, rigorous curriculum and high expectations may not be the best place for some kids with certain disabilities. They may not be right for some non-SPED kids. Does that make them any less valid? Find a traditional school with the same demographics as Success and see if the outcomes match. Burris further suggests that one reason that high-performing charters get results is because they discourage or push out low-performing students. Anyone can find anecdotes in charters and in traditional public schools to support this case, but there is no evidence of systematic discrimination by charters. Students are chosen by lottery and all are welcome to apply.
Some charters, in fact, actively seek out
more challenging kids. Charter schools exist because parents instinctively want to find the best school for their child and the local neighborhood school isn’t always the best fit. Today, nearly 10 million students—about 1 in 6 K-12 students nationwide—attend private or public charter schools or they are home-schooled. And parents with means have always exercised “choice” by living in expensive neighborhoods with high-performing schools. Interestingly, a survey from Education Next shows that
teachers are more likely than the general public to send their kids to private schools and more than a few choose charters as well. So, if teachers are opting out of the traditional system, it’s hard to fault parents for doing the same. Charter schools recently hit the
25-year mark. No one believes they are the silver bullet for everything that ails public education. Nevertheless, a significantly higher percentage of inner-city charters outperform their neighborhood counterparts and at the very top of the list is Success Academy. And you just can’t argue with success.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with