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Charter Schools Fail At Most Important Task

January 07, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow
Minnesota's charter schools are not opening opportunities for students. In fact, according to a recent report by the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School, charter school students perform at a lower academic level than those at traditional public schools.

Minnesota's first charter school  opened in 1991 - today there are more than 140 such schools serving more than 23,000 students. When they were envisioned, charter schools were touted as an alternative to underprivileged students who attended poorly run schools and didn't have the means to move to another school or attend private school, said Baris Gumus-Dawes, a research fellow at the Institute on Race and Poverty and a co-author of the report.

Gumus-Dawes noted that since 1991, little has been done to study charter school effectiveness. Using existing studies, "we found that when you control for a number of variables, charter schools today are actually performing worse than traditional public schools," Gumus-Dawes said.

The Institute's analysis of proficiency rates in elementary schools finds that in both reading and math, a lower percentage of charter school students reached proficiency compared to students who attended comparable traditional public schools. For reading proficiency, the average difference is nearly 9 percentage points and for math it is nearly 10 percentage points.

The report also shed light on race and poverty - two areas charter schools were supposed to improve by allowing parents to choose schools. Instead, research shows charter schools actually intensify both.  It found that most non-white segregated charter schools are located either in urban districts or in racially transitioning inner suburbs. In contrast, almost all of the white-segregated charter schools are located in white suburban school districts.

Perhaps most damning, the report found segregation in white urban neighborhoods with racially diverse school districts. Gumus-Dawes said these are examples of "white flight," where charter schools composed almost entirely of white students will exist within the boundaries of racially integrated schools.

While state law prohibits segregation in traditional public schools, the law doesn't apply to charter schools. The charters can be selective when admitting students by requiring such things as parental volunteerism which effectively rules out single-parent or low income families, or world language requirements that effectively rule out non-English speakers like Hmong, Hispanic or Somali students. Using these requirements, schools in racially diverse areas can have student populations that are 90 percent white.

This increase in segregation hurts students of color more than white students because students of color are much more likely to attend high-poverty schools. In 2008, students of color in the metro area were almost six times as likely to attend schools with high concentrations of poverty as white students.

Gumus-Dawes was careful to note that the research into charter schools, their academic effectiveness and their racial and economic makeup is incomplete and needs more examination. She also noted that there is no legal mandate to socially or economically integrate charter schools.

Charter schools are not the panacea to public education that we were once told. Clearly more research is needed to discover why charter schools are performing at a lower level than traditional schools. These studies should be conducted quickly so that more Minnesota students don't suffer from a substandard education.

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