The latest research into Connecticut’s charter schools found that, in general, charter schools have not delivered on the promise of better outcomes for students and that some charter schools are perpetuating practices that harm Black and Latinx students. This research is especially relevant now that several bills related to school choice and charter schools have been introduced for the 2021 legislative session.
The study compared student and teacher demographics as well as student achievement and suspensions between Connecticut charter schools and the districts that host them. Charter schools enrolled more Black students, and fewer Hispanic and Latinx students, fewer English Learners, and fewer students with disabilities than host districts.
This is important to keep in mind when comparing finances and student achievement between charter schools and host districts because English Learners and students with disabilities require more resources and tend to score lower on standardized tests.
In addition, charter schools employed fewer white teachers, more Black teachers, and fewer certified teachers. This is important for two conflicting reasons: research shows a positive relationship between student achievement and teacher-student racial congruence; however, research also shows teacher certification is associated with higher student achievement and lower teacher attrition, which is financially costly and has an especially negative impact on students of color.
Teacher attrition, which is when teachers leave a school or the profession altogether, was not included in this study but would be a good focus of future research. No significant differences were found in student achievement or suspension rates between charter schools and host districts overall, though the results showed great variability between charter schools, with some outperforming their district and others not.
The study also compared independent charter schools to those managed by charter management organizations (CMOs) which are non-profit organizations that manage multiple charter schools. The results were that CMOs enrolled more students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals and fewer white students. CMOs employed more Black teachers and fewer certified teachers. While there was no significant difference found in student achievement, CMOs suspended students at a higher rate than independent charters. This is significant because as the phrase “school to prison pipeline” suggests, researchers have found a correlation between suspensions and educational and pro-social disengagement, lowered academic achievement, dropping out of school, and being arrested, and that this is more likely to impact Black and Latino students.
Finally, the study examined school viability, defined as the ability of a school to remain open. Schools were categorized as having very weak, weak, fair, strong, or very strong viability based on three factors: length of time open, length of charter renewal, and whether the school had been placed on probation. All of the CMOs fell into the weak or fair viability categories, while half of the independent charters were strong or very strong. This is significant because charter school advocates point to school closures as a sign the system is working, but school closures have a negative impact on students. This weaker viability among CMOs is important for policymakers to consider because currently CMOs tend to get more support than independent charters from philanthropists and policymakers.
This study supports three main conclusions. First, not all charter schools are the same, and authorizers, policymakers, and parents should not consider them as such. Second, as a race-neutral approach to school reform, charter schools, as part of the school choice movement, are inappropriate for addressing racial inequity in education and, in some ways, may actually be sustaining racial inequity. Thirdly, based on the free-market economic theory that forms the basis for the school choice movement, and given the significant differences between charter schools, for charter schools to be effective as a form of education reform, parents need to be able to make informed choices about where to enroll their children, and based on the information currently available to and accessible by them, they are not able to do that.
Lisa Loomis-Davern, Ed.D., is a member of the Middletown Board of Education.