Are Charter Schools Really Better?

The state Department of Education admits charter school data is too fragmented to support overall conclusions

The presentation to the state Board of Education yesterday was clearly meant to be a positive portrait of charter schools in New Jersey, with charts of the growing interest statewide and glowing examples from some superstar schools.

It didn’t go quite as planned.

Once the PowerPoint presentation by the state Department of Education was done, several members of the board were openly critical of the report and skeptical about claims that charters do any better than traditional public schools.

As to the fundamental question of how New Jersey’s 73 charters are doing in terms of student achievement, neither the department nor the board had any answers.

“It is important that we do that kind of analysis and study,” said Rochelle Hendricks, the acting education commissioner and former head of the state’s charter office. “We are asking to buy some time.”

A Signature Issue

It was an awkward exchange about what is a signature education issue for Gov. Chris Christie and his administration. The governor has openly called for more charter schools and has proposed a series of measures that he said would help them expand and innovate.

Andrew Smarick, a special assistant to Hendricks and nationally known school choice advocate, led the presentation and spoke about the increasing enrollment and extensive waiting lists at many of the schools.

He highlighted two charters in particular, the North Star Academy Charter School in Newark and the Academy Charter School in Asbury Park. He said all or nearly all of their students pass state achievement tests, far outpacing district students. He pointed out how these schools are largely serving the same low-income, minority populations as the district schools.

At Academy, “75 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch, like in the district schools, yet the achievement differences are pretty stark,” he said.

It wasn’t all good news. Smarick remarked that the state has shut down 11 charters and not renewed five more over 15 years. And he stressed that accountability measures are critical in ensuring that New Jersey’s charters are high quality.

Pointed Questions

But it did not go well from there. The state board, consisting of gubernatorial appointees but none from Christie as yet, has lately flexed its muscle on a few administration initiatives.

Yesterday the board raised more than a few pointed questions.

“As we get the data and the information, it comes piecemeal,” said Ronald Butcher, a state board member. “If we look at the whole charter school movement, how are we doing? It appears nobody has sat down and approached this with real analysis.”

Added Edithe Fulton, a former president of the New Jersey Education Association, “Of the 73 charter schools, you point out two. I want to see the other 71.”

Good research on charter schools in New Jersey has been spotty over the years, with little detailed analysis of comparable students.

Overall, charter schools’ achievement levels are considerably lower than statewide averages. But that comparison is misleading, given that a vast majority of charter schools are located in cities where achievement levels are lower in general. Other research has found many do better than district schools, but far from all of them.

Dirty Data

After the meeting, Hendricks said the data has been difficult to assess so far, but the department is working on it.

“The data we got back just wasn’t clean,” she said. “Are we talking about the same kinds of schools and students? I want the kind of data that you can share and makes sense.”

But Hendricks maintained that charter schools as a whole do perform well, and it is not just about test scores.

By achievement measures, “I think they do better or as well as district schools,” she said. “But you also have families where they feel charter is safer, where they feel more engaged, they feel they can facilitate change in what’s going on.”

Butcher said he hoped there would be a complete study that would factor in all these elements, since the state is clearly headed to more charter schools — but without a gauge of their successes and failures so far.

“There are so many loose ends out there in terms of questions the board has, the public has,” Butcher said. “It’s only going to become more and more of a discussion item, let’s get to it.”

Well into a movement that started with a 1995 law that was highly controversial at the time, “here we are asking the same questions 15 years later,” he said.