Thursday, September 22, 2016
Massachusetts Charter Schools and Their Problems With “Attrition”
Question 2 on the November ballot will ask voters if they support giving Massachusetts the authority to lift the cap on charter schools. As it stands, no more than 120 charter schools are allowed to operate in the state; there are currently 78 active charters.A “Yes” vote on Question 2 would give the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education the authority to lift the cap, allowing up to 12 new charter schools or expansions of existing charters each year.Priority would be given to charters that open in lower-performing districts. New charters and charter expansions approved under this law would be exempt from existing limits on the number of charter schools, the number of students enrolled in them and the amount of local school districts’ spending allocated to them.
Pro-charter researchers have been weighing in. I’ll get to their arguments in due time, but for now, I want to concentrate on a key issue in the charter cap debate: attrition.
Determining whether attrition affects charter school results is central to the argument for (or against) their expansion in Massachusetts and elsewhere. If charter schools shed kids year after year — especially if those kids are low-performing — then their vaunted performance advantages are in question, particularly when compared to public district schools that aren’t losing students.
The Massachusetts charter sector has been pushing back hard on this point. Here, for example, are the “facts” from the Massachusetts Charter Public* School Association:
ATTRITION RATESThe attrition rate in Boston and in Gateway City charters “has remained lower” than the attrition rates of district schools in those communities, according to data by (DESE) in Dec. 2015 (2014-2015 school year).The attrition rate at Boston charters (9.3%) is significantly lower than in BPS (14.2%).
In Gateway Cities, charter attrition rates (6.2%) are lower than Gateway districts (11.4%).
From 2012-2014, an average of just 82 students left charters and returned to Boston Public Schools, according to BPS numbers – one-tenth of one percent of BPS total enrollment of 57,000.
Yeah, uh… no. Not really.
You see, “attrition,” for the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, has avery specific meaning:
This report provides the percentage of attrition by grade from the end of one school year to the beginning of the next for students enrolled in public schools, including charter schools, in the state. The information is as of October 1 of the school year selected. [emphasis mine]
In other words, “attrition” is the percentage of students who only leave a school’s rolls during the summer. Which may be an interesting statistic, but does not include all of the students who leave during the school year.
Further, “attrition” as defined by MA-DESE only tells half of the story we need to hear if we’re going to evaluate charter school performance. What we really need to consider is whether the students moving out of charter schools are being replaced at rates equal to the replacement rates for students moving out of public district schools.
In the case of City on a Hill and Phoenix, their 2011 freshman class shrank by more than half by the time they were seniors. That is a remarkable difference compared to BPS.
But is it part of a pattern?
In the last decade, Boston’s charter sector has had substantially greater cohort attrition than the Boston Public Schools. In fact, even though the data is noisy, you could make a pretty good case the difference in cohort attrition rates has grown over the last five years.
Is this proof that the independent charters are doing a bad job? I wouldn’t say so; I’m sure these schools are full of dedicated staff, working hard to serve their students. But there is little doubt that the public schools are doing a job that charters are not: they are educating the kids who don’t stay in the charters, or who arrive too late to feel like enrolling in them is a good choice.
This is a serious issue, and the voters of Massachusetts should be made aware of it before they cast their votes. We know that charter schools have had detrimental effects on the finances of their host school systems in other states. Massachusetts’ charter law has one of the more generous reimbursement policies for host schools, but these laws do little more than delay the inevitable: charter expansion, by definition, is inefficient because administrative functions are replicated. And that means less money in the classroom.
Is it really worth expanding charters and risking further injury to BPS when the charter sector appears, at least at the high school level, to rely so heavily on cohort attrition?
* Notice where the world “public” is put in the title of this group? They desperately want us all to believe charters are “public” schools, even when the courts and other public authorities have ruled repeatedly that they are not.