Are students better off in charter schools? State says it’s unsure

State Board of Education members and the Education Commissioner earlier this year listen to testimony from a Bridgeport parent who supports more charter schools in his community

CT Mirror File Photo / The CT Mirror

State Board of Education members and the former education commissioner  listen to testimony last year from a Bridgeport parent who supports more charter schools in his community.

Amid the ferocious debate about whether Connecticut students are better off in charter schools, the State Department of Education has released the results of its first-ever research on the subject.

It provides little clarity.

“The results were a mixed bag,” Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell told the state education board Wednesday. “In some cases, students in Choice programs made greater academic gains than their peers not enrolled in these programs, thereby closing achievement gaps, while in other cases they did not.”

Wentzell warned the board members not to draw strong conclusions from the findings. “Choice programs” is a term for public charter schools, regional magnet schools and suburban schools that enroll inner-city students through the Open Choice program.

Whether students are better off in charter schools compared to their neighborhood schools has been a topic of considerable debate at the state Capitol this year as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy pushed the legislature to spend $12.5 million more next year to expand enrollment in charter schools.

Tuesday, sharp differences of opinion were on full display in Hartford as legislators sent a bill to the governor’s desk that increases state oversight of these publicly funded, privately operated charter schools.

“The data is clear: Charters in Connecticut are delivering results for our students,” said Jennifer Alexander, the leader of ConnCAN, a charter-advocacy organization, in an email to reporters Tuesday. “Connecticut’s charter schools outperform their host districts.”

That assertion has been reinforced in a barrage of television advertisements recently — ads that say charter schools deserve more state funding because “40,000 students are trapped in failing schools.”

Some legislators, and many educators, aren’t buying it, however.

“Some of the things they are lauding them for are questionable,” Sen. Edwin Gomes, D-Bridgeport, said on the floor of the Senate early Tuesday morning.

The years-long, highly technical research attempted look into the performance issue.

The study looked at the testing outcomes for students in third and sixth grades in charter, magnet and neighborhood schools in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury during the 2010 school year. These students were compared to the proficiency rates of like students in suburban and rural schools.

Following students for two years starting in Grade 3 (from 2010 to 2012)
Proficient in math and reading in 2010 Proficient in math and reading in 2012 difference from non-urban schools in 2010 difference from non-urban schools in 2012
Students in charter schools 63.6% 58.2% -15.3% -27%
Students in regional magnet schools 48.4 58.1 -30.5 -27.1%
Students in non-choice schools in urban districts 43.9% 48.3% -35% -36.9%

The results found that by 2012, the achievement gap among the third grade cohort of charter students and their non-urban peers had grown by 5.4 percent. The gap for the six grade cohort narrowed by 8 percent.

“The inconsistent findings between cohort 1 and cohort 2 are puzzling,” the 41-page report states. “It cannot be said with certainty that clones of these [school] choice programs, or an exportation of specific pedagogical techniques and strategies used, will necessarily ensure similar performance successes for urban students.”

This research is long overdue, many legislators say.

“Before I do any investing, I want to know my rate of return.” said Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, on the Senate floor. She was referring to a proposal to spend nearly $100 million each year on charter schools.  Twenty-one Democratic legislators co-sponsored a bill earlier this year that would have placed a moratorium on new charter schools until the state reviewed their performance.

Ultimately, the legislature did not adopt the moratorium and instead, on Wednesday, approved a state budget that expands enrollment in charter schools by more than 1,000 students next year.

Tuesday’s report made the need for more research clear.

“This analysis provides an important benchmark for evaluating Connecticut’s Choice programs,” the report states.

“A more detailed follow-up, school-level analysis of the best-performing programs is needed to determine the relative stability of these findings from school to school because higher overall program performance generally does not ensure that all schools are applying the model equally well,” the report continues. “A school-level study can determine in more detail precisely what specific pedagogical or programmatic methods yield the observed performance gains in the better performing programs.”

The report is not likely to quiet the debate among proponents and opponents of the continued expansion of charter schools.

“We maintain that every child in Connecticut deserves a high-quality option, and this study shows that our state’s public schools of choice are delivering results for students in our urban and traditionally underserved communities,” ConnCAN, the charter advocacy group based in New Haven, said in a statement. “The meaningful gains highlighted in this study underscore the need for a high-quality schools of choice to be a critical part of our state”

But Patrice McCarthy, the lobbyist for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said it leaves many questions about Choice programs. “I don’t know how persuasive it will be,” she said.

Following students for two years starting in Grade 6 (from 2010 to 2012)
Proficient in math and reading in 2010 Proficient in math and reading in 2012 difference from non-urban schools in 2010 difference from non-urban schools in 2012
Students in charter schools 73.3% 81.3% -15.7% -9.5%
Students in regional magnet schools 75% 75% -14% -15.8%
Students in non-choice schools in urban districts 61.3% 59.6% -27.7 -31.2
State Department of Education

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