City Hall

Before Vote to Help Uplift Sell Less Expensive Bonds, City Council to Get Schooled on Charters

Below is the charter school briefing the city council was promised last week, but only after the heated discussion punctuated by Mayor Mike Rawlings's fiery call to expand charters -- because, as he said, "freedom is choice, choice creates excellence, and excellence graduates kids." The purpose of the briefing, of course, is twofold: to explain charters to council members who've had little experience with them, and to calm the nerves of those 'round the horseshoe concerned about forming that corporation that would help Uplift Education sell those tax-exempt bonds for its expansion into Deep Ellum and Fort Worth. Some of the council just want to know if the city's on the hook for the bonds; others are concerned their aiding and abetting the demise of the Dallas ISD.

The lengthy presentation -- one of many that will fill a busy Wednesday for the council, which will also hear that Southern Dallas growth plan -- reveals, among many other things, where Uplift gets its funding ("State sources 86%, Federal sources 10%, Private donations 4%"), its total attendance figures (5,700 students) and how many of them reside within the Dallas Independent School District (3,400). It also offers charts like the you see above. And so, what was once a hurry-up-and-vote consent addendum item is slowly, surely morphing into a much, much more significant conversation pitting the DISD against charters in general and Uplift in particular.

Which is nothing new.

Trustee Carla Ranger, for one, has long been terrified of the district's flirtation with charters, made very public in April 2010 when Tom Leppert and Michael Hinojosa held their City Hall presser to tout reform and rebirth in West Dallas and the possible creation of an Uplift-run teachers' academy, for which there's no money, not yet. Said the trustee last year, when several Uplift board members were appointed to the DISD's Citizens Budget Review Commission, "Persons connected to charter schools have a potential conflict in light of the current push to expand charter schools in Dallas ISD (Charter School Ad Hoc Committee)."

DISD has but one charter: Gabe P. Allen near Bernal and Singleton. But in September 2010, the district formed that ad hoc committee to look at upping that number, and so began those Dallas Regional Chamber-sponsored trips to Denver, Houston and Los Angeles to study their charters. But as The News noted in September 2010, "Some officials are also concerned DISD's best and brightest might be siphoned by charter schools, which could also hurt the traditional school system." Ranger, an acolyte of charter critic Diane Ravitch, wrote on her blog just last month, following the vote to close those 11 campuses: "The eventual sell-out of Dallas ISD real estate to charter schools is one likely result of what was just done by the Board on last Thursday night.

Destroy public schools and privatize them with charter schools."

Ranger's reiterating what Ravitch has been saying for years, ever since the former deputy education secretary and No Child Left Behind proponent had her change of heart. The author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education said only last week that "what we're doing in this country is tearing apart public education and bringing in lots of entrepreneurial people to make money off education but we're not providing a better education. In fact I've concluded, and it's reconfirmed every day, we're making education worse."

Ravitch's name, of course, doesn't appear in the council briefing. But the 2009 RAND study of charters does, summed up with with a handful of random factoids pulled out of a massive 162-page report you can read in its entirety here. Or you can read the long-story-short, which does address some council members' concerns, specifically about whether "charter schools ... harm students in nearby traditional public schools by draining resources":

Charter schools are not skimming the highest-achieving students from traditional public schools, nor are they creating racial stratification. When researchers examined the prior achievement-test scores of students transferring to charter schools, they found that those scores were near or below the local district or state average. This suggests that charter schools are not drawing the best students away from traditional public schools, as some opponents predicted that they would. Similarly, when the researchers looked at whether transfers to charter schools affected the distribution of students by race or ethnicity, they found that, in most sites, the racial composition of the charter school entered by a transferring student was similar to that of the traditional public school that he or she had left.

On average, across varying communities and policy environments, charter middle and high schools produce achievement gains that are about the same as those in traditional public schools. However, the achievement gains for charter elementary schools are challenging to estimate and remain unclear because elementary students typically have no baseline test scores at the time they enter kindergarten. For middle- and high-school levels, the research team found that achievement gains in charter schools and traditional public schools were about the same, with two exceptions. First, charter schools generally do not perform well in the first year of operation, when their students tend to fall behind. Gains generally occur thereafter. Second, there is reason for concern about the performance of virtual charter schools, which serve their students remotely in the students' homes rather than in a school building. In the one location with a substantial number of virtual charter schools (Ohio), their students showed achievement gains that fell significantly short of those in traditional public schools and classroom-based charter schools.

Charter schools do not appear to help or harm student achievement in nearby traditional public schools. Some proponents have predicted that the presence of charter schools would have a positive effect on nearby traditional public schools by exerting positive competitive pressure; some opponents have worried that charter schools would harm students in nearby traditional public schools by draining resources. Neither theory was borne out by the study. The researchers examined student achievement in traditional public schools that had charter schools nearby, and they found that the presence of the charter schools did not appear to help or harm student achievement in the traditional public schools.

Students who attended charter high schools were more likely to graduate and go on to college. For the locations for which charter-high school graduation and college attendance rates were available -- Chicago and Florida -- the researchers found that attending a charter high school appeared to boost a student's probability of graduating by 7 to 15 percentage points. Similarly, students who attended a charter high school appeared to benefit from an 8 to 10 percentage point increase in the likelihood that they would enroll in college. Although there are some limitations to these results, they provide reason for encouragement in terms of the long-term benefits of charter schools. They also suggest a need to look beyond test scores to fully assess charter schools' performance.

Policy Implications

The study holds several implications for policy and future research. First, the finding that charter schools are not drawing the highest-achieving students from traditional public schools can help alleviate some of the concerns held by policymakers. Second, the absence of effects on achievement in nearby traditional public schools suggests that the loss of students to charter schools is not having negative achievement effects on traditional public schools, but it also suggests that charter schools may not produce the hoped-for positive competitive effects in traditional public schools. Finally, this research makes clear the need to move beyond test scores and broaden the scope of measures used to evaluate success. This was the first study to extend the scope of outcome measures to include long-term outcomes, such as high-school graduation and college attendance, in addition to test scores, and the results are more encouraging than test scores alone would indicate. Future research on charter schools should seek to examine a broader and deeper range of student outcomes.

Wait -- what's this vote on again? Oh, right -- helping Uplift sell less-expensive bonds to open a single school in Deep Ellum, and two more in Fort Worth. The briefing's below.CharterSchools_EFC_021512

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky