Willful Selection Bias Vilifies Charter Schools

Willful Selection Bias Vilifies Charter Schools
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Jamie Kaczowski laughs with her classmates as they line up to graduate from BART charter high school at Massachusetts College Of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Mass., Saturday, June 7, 2014. (AP Photo/The Berkshire Eagle, Stephanie Zollshan)

RCEd Commentary

The battle lines are drawn on Massachusetts’ Ballot Question 2 on whether to lift the statewide cap on public charter schools: Hope vs. fear.

Proponents point out that Massachusetts charter schools have driven incredible results for disadvantaged students, and hope that expanding them will give more low-income kids a fair shot. Opponents claim that whatever the gains to charter students, charter expansion could destabilize traditional school districts. 

The debate in this deep blue state has national ramifications, as the politics of charter schools shift amid rising opposition from groups like Black Lives Matter and the NAACP, and the waxing influence of teachers’ unions on the Democratic party nationally. Charter opponents think that blocking expansion would herald a major shift, while charter advocates think that if charters should win anywhere, it’s in Massachusetts where performance is arguably stronger than in any other state.

Given all this, a broader understanding of the facts can help voters and observers sort through it all; while the claims of charter proponents are backed by serious social science research, those of opponents contain serious errors of omission.

The Campaign to Save Our Public Schools asserts that charter enrollment costs traditional school districts over $400 million dollars a year in state aid. While this number isn’t false, put forth in isolation it excludes two vital pieces of the financial equation.

First, it leaves out the local contribution to school finance. Consider Boston Public Schools, which saw a net decrease of $56 million dollars in state aid from 2011 to 2015, due in large part to charter enrollment. Over that same period, according to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, BPS’s overall budget actually increased by 23.4 percent as the city of Boston increased its education expenditures. Thus, in the home of more than a quarter of Massachusetts charter schools, charter enrollment has come at no cost to district schools.

Second, focusing solely on net-loss of state aid ignores the fact that charter enrollment actually drives per-pupil spending increases in traditional districts. This occurs because the state reimburses districts for students it no longer serves: 100 percent in the first year and 25 percent for the next five years. Although Massachusetts has not always fully funded this reimbursement, it is the most generous program in the nation: District schools are being paid for students they don’t teach. As a result, charter enrollment effectively increases total district per-pupil spending by over $85 million statewide.

Now, whether this effective increase in per-pupil expenditures actually helps school districts is an open question. District schools face longstanding vendor-agreements, work-rules, and bargaining arrangements that can inhibit efficient management. But, if traditional districts had the administrative flexibility of charter schools, this increase in per-pupil spending would present a clear win-win.

There is no evidence that charter expansion has done academic harm to traditional district schools. In fact, from 2011-2015, English and math scores increased in the 10 districts with the highest local share of charter enrollment. The percent of students scoring “advanced” or “proficient” in English on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Academic System increased by nearly 15 points on average in these 10 districts. In math, eight of the 10 districts saw a higher percentage of students scoring “advanced” or “proficient,” by nearly five points on average. Charter enrollment also sharply increases SAT scores and Advanced Placement course-taking and scores, according to researchers affiliated with the National Bureau for Economic Research.

While the claims of financial and academic harm to district public schools don’t stand up well to scrutiny, the claims of charter advocates have been borne out by rigorous academic studies. When the Massachusetts Secretary of Education claims that, “Boston charter school students are learning at twice the rate of their district-school peers,” he is not exaggerating so much as simply restating the findings of Stanford University’s Center for on Educational Outcomes.

Researchers have also compared the results of students who gained access to a charter school with those who were denied (by random lottery), and have been able to conclusively demonstrate that charter enrollment causes increases in college-going results. It also induces a substantial enrollment shift from two- to four-year universities.

Both financially and academically, charters have proven a boon for the Bay State. Yet tens of thousands of students continue to linger on waitlists, as the supply of charter schools is bumping up against the statewide cap. When voters make their way to the polls in November, they will have to weigh the justified yet frustrated hopes of these students against the unsubstantiated fears of charter opponents. As the deadline closes in, fear may yet win out not only against hope, but against the facts.

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