Catherine Deutsch

Danel Hertz’s recent column about school choice in Chicago raises important questions but ultimately misses the mark. The Illinois Network of Charter Schools would like to reframe the issue to provide a more appropriate conversation about school quality and the limited options available to Chicago’s families. 

Hertz’s central claim is that the growth of charter schools has not delivered on the promise of moving more families to higher-performing schools across the “market.”  Instead, Hertz asserts, families are activating their option to leave their low-performing neighborhood school, but sometimes in favor of an equally mediocre charter school.  Hertz concludes that this is a failure of the market-based solution that charters represent.

Because Hertz falls into the common trap of equating ending test scores – 11th grade ACT scores in this case – with a high-quality school, his analysis leads to short-sighted conclusions.  In addition, Hertz doesn’t take into consideration some important constraints on the supply of high quality schools of any type in the city.  Refining the analysis to address these crucial factors shows that overall, parents are leaving schools with low student achievement growth in favor of charter schools with a record of high student growth.  You’ll also see that politics stand in the way of more children’s access to a school that will support life trajectory-changing levels of growth.  So why not use charter schools – in conjunction with more school accountability – to increase the number of non-selective quality options across the city?

We can all agree that Chicago’s school market is far from textbook perfect. On the demand side, poor access to public transportation and concerns over safety through certain neighborhoods limit student mobility (see this recent Scientific American article). On the supply side, there is a clear lack of high-quality non-selective schools. Open-enrollment charter public schools, however, are overrepresented among those schools where students experience higher-than-average academic growth and higher-than-average college persistence.  

A refined analysis

We can enhance the previous analysis by incorporating the following refinements:

Focus on growth instead of attainment. Specifically, this means point gains from 9th to 11th grade on the ACT system known as EPAS. This is a better measure of school impact because it allows one to measure student improvement over time. Writer and Noble Street charter teacher Matthew McCabe makes this and other points nicely in his recent blog post in response to Dan’s analysis.

Exclude selective schools. These schools select students based on previous achievement and have extremely limited supply – last year, over 18,000 families applied to the roughly 3,000 freshman seats in the 10 CPS selective enrollment schools.  Realistically, these schools are not an option for the vast majority of CPS students whose low baseline achievement precludes them from applying, let alone for the five out of the six children who do apply for admission.  Below is a reconfiguration of Hertz’s analysis with the two points above in mind.

Note that most enrollment decreases between 2006 and 2013 occurred in non-charter schools with lackluster student growth. At the same time, many more students gained access to schools where the average student makes 4-7 points of growth between their freshman and senior year. In other words, the trend is that high-growth charter schools are gaining students while low-growth, non-charter, non-selective schools are losing students. In this sense, parents are making informed choices to choose schools that have a greater impact on student achievement. 

Some claim that charter schools are similar to selective schools because students have to apply. But incoming charter school test scores indicate that the average charter school student enters high school with academic results that are indistinguishable from those entering nonselective district schools. 

Here is another view of the same data. 19/20 non-selective schools that offer the highest average gains from 9th grade to 11th grade are charter public schools.

A call to action

Back in 2008, if a student who did not get into a selective school wanted to attend a non-selective school where the average student could come in with a 15 and still end up with a college ready ACT score of 21, she would not have had such an option available.  Today, she’d have high-quality charter schools available.

Hertz’s central question still stands – why don’t more families have access to these highest growth schools? I agree, this is criminal, but likely not an issue of lack of demand.  Unfortunately, the supply for these high-performing schools is restricted. There are numerous reasons for this; including the charter school cap (raised modestly in 2009), inequitable funding for charter school students that constrain proven operators from opening even more high-quality seats, the low supply of open facilities, and – most importantly – the political climate dominated by entities that protect adult interests at the expense of the well-being of families stranded in neighborhoods with low-performing schools. 

The new CPS accountability system coming this fall represents an opportunity to evaluate schools on metrics that matter – academic growth, credit accrual towards graduation, college enrollment and persistence.  We can have great public schools of all types, including district-run, charters, selective enrollment and magnet schools. What we can’t do is take no action when schools are failing to help our students achieve the ambitious academic, social, and emotional growth that puts them on a trajectory to college and career readiness.  By all means, if charter schools don’t measure up on these crucial outcomes – they should be considered for closure.  In the interim, we should focus on getting every family in Chicago a safe, high quality school option.  As more than 50,000 Chicago families know, charters are a crucial part of this solution. 

Catherine Deutsch is senior manager of policy and research for the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

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