Disclaimer: I completely agree with many of the fair criticisms of charter schools, i.e. students often come from more motivated, educated families; students come from families that can (often) afford to provide their own transportation; students can be dismissed from the school for behavioral reasons; students have to enter the school lottery months before school begins, effectively excluding transient families. However, this article is intended to examine what I believe is a flawed argument touted by charter school critics – that charter schools don’t achieve anything better than traditional public schools.

Recently Georgia State University came out with a report on charter schools in the state of Georgia. In it they found that charter schools performed “about the same as regular schools.” (Click here to read the AJC article.) I have to say I don’t believe charter school critics (like Diane Ravitch) have found their strongest argument when they use reports that charter schools “perform on average with the traditional public schools” — as if to imply that charter schools don’t “work.”

Charter schools often serve students who are under-served at their neighborhood school

Many charter schools serve students in areas with schools that are performing below the state and national average. This is not always the case, but in the GSU report, over 50% of the sample charter schools serve high percentages of students that are often under-resourced and under-served (which, many times, means you will be attending a struggling school). The chart below displays the demographic information for the 15 schools included in the study (3 of which are online schools).

Student demographics charter

If a charter school is performing on average with the traditional public schools, then perhaps they aren’t actually doing such a terrible job. Instead of students performing below average at a neighborhood school, many students in charter schools are performing at the same level as the “average” traditional school. This means they are performing better at many charter schools than at their neighborhood schools. This is the comparison we should be making: Would the same students be performing better at their neighborhood school than at the local charter school?

For example, KIPP Strive Primary and KIPP Strive Academy, located in Southwest Atlanta, competes with elementary schools such as Gideons ES which has consistently performed way below the state average (and was additionally harmed by the APS cheating scandal). However, KIPP Strive, with the same student populations, performs on average with the traditional public schools – many years exceeding the traditional public school performance. Click on the links to compare these two schools.

kipp strive academy demographics
KIPP Strive Academy Demographics
gideons elementary demographics
Gideons ES Demographics

In DeKalb County, PATH Academy (middle school), which serves many students in the Sequoyah Middle School attendance zone, performs better than that competing middle school. By no means should these examples by taken to be exhaustive proof, but it does illustrate the above point.

path demographics
PATH Academy Demographics
sequoyah demographics
Sequoyah MS Demographics

Average is still better than below-average

For critics of charter schools to argue that charter schools aren’t “that great” or that they aren’t actually doing any better than the average of the state’s traditional schools is to miss a major factor when considering the performance of these schools. If the average school in the geographic area is performing below the state average, then if a charter school performs on average, it is still out-performing the traditional schools. This is a key component that critics are not including in their analysis of charter schools.

Another aspect many charter school critics are missing is that charter schools –while they still need to enroll more students who are Hispanic, Black, living in poverty, struggling with disabilities, or English Language Learners – continue to increase the enrollment of these students. The following was published in the findings of a 2013 Stanford University study that compared the performance of students in charter schools and traditional public schools:

“Looking at the demographics of the 27-state charter school sector, charter school enrollment has expanded among students in poverty, black students, and Hispanic students. These are precisely the students that, on average, find better outcomes in charter schools*.”(*Emphasis added.)

Unfortunately, the achievement gap still exists between Hispanic and Black students and their White and Asian counterparts. According to numerous reports and studies, Hispanic and Black students are much more likely to be in a “failing” neighborhood school. If these particular students are gaining more access to charter schools and if charter schools are producing better academic results for these students, then it is misleading for critics to say that charter schools are essentially achieving the same results as traditional public schools.

To summarize – charter schools have many issues, and I will discuss those during another post. However, the main assertion I would like to make is that charter schools oftentimes do a better job than their geographically comparable neighborhood schools. There are schools all over the state that are performing all over the map when it comes to academic achievement. All of that is combined to create the “state average.” If charter schools, which are often serving students located in low-performing districts or attendance zones, achieve the same results as the state average, then they are many times outperforming their geographically similar traditional public schools.

I believe critics of charter schools have many more legitimate arguments they can make against charter schools. This just isn’t one of them.