Does Kentucky Need Charter Schools?

So Gary Houchens sent me this handy link about ACT scores in the midst of a Twitter discussion on charter schools in Kentucky.  Of course, there aren’t any charter schools in Kentucky right now.  But Gary wants to change that.

Which is fine. There are some very high quality, solid charter operators out there who may offer good options for some families.

BUT: The ACT numbers from the link simply don’t make the case that Kentucky MUST have charter schools to get results.

Houchens and Richard Innes from the Bluegrass Institute suggest that if Kentucky is to improve its results for African-American and Latino students, charter schools provide the answer.

Not so fast.  Let’s look at a comparison between Tennessee and Kentucky.  After all, Tennessee is most similar demographically and it’s right next door (or, below).

Tennessee has also gradually been expanding charter school offerings since 2002.  There are several high quality charter programs in both Memphis and Nashville.  So, if charters really do help urban students and students of color improve performance, that result would be evident in the numbers Innes cites.

Instead, African-American and Latino students in Kentucky perform better than their counterparts in Tennessee.  And in fact, the achievement gap between white and African-American students in Kentucky and Tennessee is identical.

Just having charter schools hasn’t made Tennessee any better at getting results for students of color.

Perhaps even more telling is how Kentucky and Tennessee students on free/reduced lunch perform. For this, we turn to NAEP results. Both states have around 55% of their students on free/reduced lunch.  Initially, Tennessee students on the program were the focus of charter schools, though that has expanded.  So, if the benefits of charters are clear, they’d be showing up here.

Kentucky’s kids score higher than Tennessee’s on 7 out of 8 indicators (4th/8th math, science, reading, writing).

Let’s take 4th grade reading as an example.  In 2009, Kentucky 4th graders on free/reduced lunch scored 10 points higher on NAEP reading than Tennessee’s.  By 2011, the difference was 12 points in Kentucky’s favor, with Tennessee’s number actually dropping a point.

What’s Kentucky doing differently? A focus on high standards and, until recently, investment in schools.  Can they do more? Sure! And charter schools could be a part of that equation.

Let me be clear: High quality, high performing charters should NOT be prevented from coming to Kentucky simply because a few superintendents don’t like the idea.  If quality can be controlled and accountability ensured, Kentucky might want to add charter schools to its arsenal.

But let’s also be clear about expectations.  Simply adding the choice of a high quality charter school will not dramatically change the Kentucky education landscape.  Kentucky shouldn’t be adding charter schools simply because choice is a nice idea.  Or because they are expecting some dramatic new result.  Expectations should be realistic and the focus, in general, should be on investing in the resources that support high quality, rigorous instruction for all students, regardless of what type of school they attend.

For more on education policy in Kentucky, follow us @KyEdReport

5 thoughts on “Does Kentucky Need Charter Schools?

  1. You raise some good questions that need at least a quick reply.

    Tennessee had 48 charter schools enrolling 12,308 students in 2012-13.

    Louisiana had 103 charters with 49,946 students in the same year.

    In the fall of 2009 (sorry, most recent enrollment data I can find quickly), Table 37 in the 2011 Digest of Education Statistics says Tennessee’s total enrollment was 972,549 and Louisiana’s was only 690,915.

    Assuming not much change in enrollment between 2009 and 2012-13, charters made up 7.2 percent of the Louisiana enrollment but only 1.2 percent of Tennessee’s. Clearly, even if charters in Tennessee perform very well, it is much harder for them to impact the overall Tennessee scores.

    That is why I focused on Louisiana, instead.

    Also, I have not said that charters are the whole, magic answer. They are just another tool Kentucky needs to have in its toolbox, a position you seem to agree with.

    • Why are charters needed? That’s my basic question. Why not just give current public schools more latitude?

      If charter schools are for-profit or are about shutting out certified union teachers, I reject these aspects as “reforms”.

      Where a charter might succeed better is in trying new methods for ensuring children are ready to learn, and perhaps through alternative modes of teaching. But these things can be done in current public schools with some legislative and regulatory tweaks.

      • Great points, Steve. That’s really my point. Kentucky doesn’t need charters. Sure, there are high-quality, high-performing charter schools, but they are not an essential (or even necessary) element of effective education reform. Legislative/regulatory changes can allow traditional public schools to make some of the changes charter schools make. By and large, charters do not perform better than traditional public schools. Some perform worse. After two or three years of watching, the state may note that a charter is not performing — but then, those students return to the traditional public schools behind. If there are key takeaways from charter successes, why not give districts the opportunity to implement those aspects into their schools?

      • Great points, Steve. That’s essentially my point — Kentucky doesn’t need charters. They are not “bad” on their face, but they are not necessary in order for Kentucky to achieve educational gains. Some charters are very good. Some are very bad. Most are about the same (in terms of performance) as traditional public schools. The problem arises when after two or three years, the state notices a charter is not performing. Even if the school is closed, that leaves a number of kids who are now academically behind re-entering the traditional public schools. Why not make policy changes that would allow district schools to adopt some of the positive elements of successful charter schools?

        • Andy, the assertion that charters don’t outperform is mostly based on those studies that lump a lot of first year charter school students into their charter samples. That biases down the charter results, because it takes students more than a year to adjust to charters.

          Even the much quoted CREDO report from 2009 says that once kids spend 3 years in a charter, they do outperform their public school peers.

          But, you will not see that effect in studies, including the data from CREDO, that includes first-year charter students. The charters simply have not had sufficient time to work with these new kids to start showing improvement with them.

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