A report from the state Department of Education found that public charter schools and magnet schools operated by Regional Educational Service Centers (RESCs) have helped inner-city students achieve higher academic proficiency than their peers in the public school system.
The education department, which analyzed data from a 3rd to 5th grade and 6th to 8th grade cohort for their report, drew their findings from comparing the Connecticut Mastery Test scores of urban students in non-Choice schools, public charter schools, magnet school populated by students from local districts, magnet schools operated by RESCs, and the Open Choice program.
The data concluded that, in the 3rd to 5th grade cohort, magnet schools operated by RESCs performed best at closing the academic achievement gap.
In this cohort, the Open Choice schools program and the magnet schools operated by local districts were the second- and third-best performing, respectively.
The public charter school system, however, remained the worst performer in the 3rd to 5th grade cohort.
The authors of the report called this “puzzling,” as the public charter school system proved to be the best option for CMT takers in the 6th to 8th grade cohort, followed by magnet schools operated by RESCs.
The report attributes this inconsistency to a disparity within learning strategies, saying that “strategies that work best for the younger students in cohort 1 may not be as effective for the slightly more mature students in cohort 2, and vice versa.”
However, despite the unyielding language of the report, the data provides little clarity.
“The results were a mixed bag,” Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell told the state Board of Education at last week’s meeting http://www.ctn.state.ct.us/ctnplayer.asp?odID=10342 , urging members not to draw strong conclusions from the report. “In some cases, students in Choice programs made greater academic gains than their peers not enrolled in these programs, thereby closing achievement gaps, while in other cases they did not.”
So the question remains — are charter and magnet schools really a better academic option than their public counterparts?
In a state that has the worst achievement gap in the nation, this debate has continuously plagued Connecticut lawmakers and citizens alike. The controversy recently became revitalized when Democratic lawmakers learned of Malloy’s insistence to allocate $4.6 million of the recently-approved $40.3 billion state budget to fund two new charter schools.
Charter school advocates such as Malloy argue that students in Connecticut’s charter schools perform better on standardized tests than their public school counterparts, while proponents like Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, a group dedicated to improving education options for the state’s youth, continue to voice support for giving parents of students in underperforming schools the high-quality options they deserve.
However, opponents of the expansion, such as Rep. Ezequiel Santiago, D-Bridgeport, believe the charter school system to be stripping funds from public schools that are already floundering. According to Santiago, public schools are like a large ship that has a crack in the hull — he said 95 percent of the students are on board and instead of funding appropriate repairs, they decided to take a few students off and put them in a charter school lifeboat.
State Rep. Ed Vargas, on the floor of the House during debate over legislation to change the way charter schools are governed, took the analogy a step further by saying that rather than repairing the ship, the governor wants to build two new lifeboats to save some of the students, instead of all of them. Vargas, a Hartford Democrat who taught for 35 years, said that charters started out as a way to experiment with new teaching techniques without being limited by public school bureaucracy. But lately, Vargas said, they have instead been trying to compete with public schools for funding.
Those concerns are not unfounded — under the education reform legislation passed in 2012, the Achievement First, a charter school with campuses in Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven, has seen an increase in state funding of $2,600 per student while the average student in 30 poorer districts has seen an increase of an average of $150 per student, according to the AFT-CT website.
This information is part of a report compiled by AFT Connecticut, the state’s second largest teacher union. The report also includes data on the increased racial segregation of charter schools.
This data is tangentially supported by a report released by the advocacy group Connecticut Voices for Children last year. They said their research found that with at least 90 percent minority students, Connecticut charter schools are “hypersegregated.”
Moreover, the Connecticut Voices for Children report found that charter schools’ results may be linked to the fact that they have a financial incentive to exclude English Language-Learner students, as the schools would have to pay out-of-pocket for the ELL programs, and disabled students, as the schools have no specific diversity requirements.
However, despite their heavily-reported flaws, it is largely undeniable that, like the Education Department report suggests, Connecticut’s charter school system fosters academically-successful students, thus bringing the state closer to closing it’s mile-wide achievement gap.
“We maintain that every child in Connecticut deserves a high-quality option, and this study shows that our state’s public schools of choice are delivering results for students in our urban and traditionally underserved communities,” ConnCAN said in a press release. “The meaningful gains highlighted in this study underscore the need for a high-quality schools of choice to be a critical part of our state’s efforts to improve public education.”
Above all, the Education Department report made the need for more research clear.
“This analysis provides an important benchmark for evaluating Connecticut’s Choice programs,” the report states.