The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016 11:51 am

Charter schools fall short on promises

Timothy P. Ehrgott

It is long past time for an open discussion in Indiana about charter school performance. An initial review of their results under the state’s A-F accountability system is shocking: Charters produce less than half the percentage of A’s of traditional public schools and nine times the percentage of F’s.

In a state that rates three-quarters of its public schools as A’s and B’s, only 38 percent of charters grade out as A’s or B’s.

But this initial review may be unfair. Charter schools are overwhelmingly located in urban areas, with a higher percentage of at-risk students, while public schools extend into suburban areas with fewer at-risk students.

(While charters are public schools, “public” is used in this commentary to denote traditional public schools.)

What if the data were adjusted for socioeconomic factors, and we compare apples to apples? Do charters then live up to their original premise and clearly outperform similar public schools in the market?

The answer is an alarming and unambiguous “no.” Charters produce half the A’s and twice the F’s of the public-school system in the most-at-risk categories representing the very students they were formed to help.

When Indiana began its charter-school experiment in 2002, the advocates of reform, including myself (as the founder of one of the original charters), had presented Indiana taxpayers with a premise and a promise.

Premise: By being freed up from unnecessary regulations, charter schools, as “independent” public schools, could operate more efficiently than the “bloated” public schools and produce superior results with fewer resources, especially in areas with at-risk students.

Promise: If charter schools failed to achieve results superior to what was already in the marketplace – as demonstrated by Indiana Department of Education metrics and those agreed to with their authorizers – they would face closure.

Any modification of the A-F system or increase in charter funding would have to be so transformative that it would double the percentage of charters earning A’s and halve the percentage graded as F’s. And that would only bring charter-school performance up to the level of the public schools, not above them, as understood in the original premise of charters.

The question then almost asks itself: Why continue to fund charter schools as alternatives, when the existing schools are doing not only as well but much better? After all, Indiana already has a cohort of schools that are performing as well as the public schools at a similar cost. They’re called public schools!

There are steps – short- and long-term – that could improve this picture, starting with recognizing the charters that are succeeding and the authorizers who actually are closing the ones that are not. And with three-quarters of Indiana schools graded an “A” or a “B,” it simply isn’t acceptable to sustain a “C” school. Mediocrity is not success, and it should not be a ticket for perpetual renewal.

Suggestions, including ways to fund charter facilities and provide student transportation, are included in the full-length version of this article to be published in The Indiana Policy Review.

There are well-run charter schools in our state that are making a difference in their students’ lives. Overall, however, if a medical study produced these results – with many more adverse outcomes than positive ones – the project would be shut down. Perhaps it is time for Indiana citizens to ask their legislators why the same isn’t true for underperforming charter schools.

Timothy P. Ehrgott is an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, for which he wrote this. Ehrgott founded a charter school in Indianapolis and served as its president for eight years. He currently consults with a start-up technology communications company. 

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