DC Charters

| Mon Dec. 15, 2008 12:47 PM EST

DC CHARTERS....The Washington Post reports today that DC's charter schools are doing well:

According to a Washington Post analysis of recent national test results for economically disadvantaged students, D.C. middle-school charters scored 19 points higher than the regular public schools in reading and 20 points higher in math.

....The two public systems are, in general, educating students from similar backgrounds. About two-thirds of the students in both systems live in poverty, and more than 90 percent are minorities, according to school records.

I'm basically a fan of charter schools. I hope they are doing well in DC. But before we pat ourselves too hard on the back here, let's read a little more:

Charter schools must accept any student who applies, using a lottery if they have more applicants than spaces. That prevents the schools from cherry-picking applicants. But each school is free to set its own rules on expelling students.

....For each elementary student enrolled, a District charter school receives $11,879 in tax dollars, including $8,770 to match per-pupil academic spending in the regular public schools and a $3,109 facility allotment to help pay for buildings....Charter schools can use the facilities money for any purpose, and that funding stream can provide a crucial advantage over traditional public schools. For schools with 300 or more students, the funding often exceeds building costs, and the surplus has gone to hire additional staff and buy extra computers and books.

....Friendship Public Charter Schools — the city's largest charter network, with five schools and more than 4,000 students — has a surplus of $3.4 million that has funded cutting-edge equipment, including computerized interactive whiteboards that are found even in preschool classrooms.

The extra funding, it turns out, coincides with improved academic performance: The schools with the largest surpluses have ranked at the top on test scores.

....Some charter schools have been especially successful at supplementing taxpayer funding with charitable grants from donors as large as the Bill and Melinda Gates and Walton foundations and as small as their friends and neighbors. Thurgood Marshall charter school, founded by Georgetown University's Street Law Program, expects $1.7 million in contributions this year, accounting for 25 percent of overall spending, according to its budget.

Let's summarize. Charter schools can't "cherry pick," but their students all come from families that have chosen to apply for a place. This means their student bodies are automatically far different from those in standard public schools, since they include only students whose parents care about education in the first place. This is a very, very big difference.

And charters get to expel students who cause problems. "Our success is not from moving kids out," says Susan Schaeffler, who heads the KIPP program in DC, and that might be so in raw numbers. But the ability to get rid of even a small number of serious behavior problems can have a substantial impact.

Finally, it turns out that charters get more money than traditional schools — both from the city and from private sources. And they use that money to buy extra books, hire more staff, and create programs that attract good students. And the schools with the most money seem to perform the best. Amazing!

Look: even your most novice educational researcher knows that comparing test scores is useless unless you control pretty carefully for things like parental involvement and expenditure levels. And most of the studies I've seen suggest that once you do that, charters perform about the same as traditional schools. At most, they perform only slightly better.

Now, I don't know what such a study would show of DC's charters, but neither does the Post. And you can certainly make the case that offering DC parents a choice is a good thing regardless. I certainly think it is. But pretending that charters have improved test scores is journalistic malpractice. The Post simply hasn't presented any credible evidence that this is the case.