Supporters of traditional public schools have long claimed that charter schools, as a whole, perform no better, having the same distribution of lousy, average and good schools as traditional districts.
But last week’s state test results indicate that may not be the case.
Local charter school scores, in fact, averaged 9 points better in English and 10 points better in math than the Buffalo Public Schools as a whole. While the comparisons are not exact because the charters have varying numbers of students, it’s close enough to conclude that they are doing something better than the district schools.
Not that either is making the honor roll. Local charters averaged 26.6 in English and 27.6 in math, compared to the district’s overall 17.8 and 17.2. Both were well below the statewide proficiency rates of 39.8 and 40.2.
That, however, is a function of poverty. The relative handful of schools in both categories with the lowest percentages of disadvantaged kids – such as City Honors, Discovery and Olmsted 156 in the district; and Elmwood Village among the charters – also had the highest scores.
District officials, meanwhile, cite a different set of numbers: the changes from 2016 to 2017. By their calculations, charter schools declined by 0.67 percent in math while BPS schools improved by 0.87 percent. In English, charter schools declined by 1.16 percent while BPS schools improved by 0.99 percent.
None of those changes are overwhelming, but they do show district schools moving in the right direction, and charter schools not so much – depending on how much stock you put in one-year trends.
More significantly, the district educates and tests much larger percentages of English language learners and students with disabilities, whose results can drag down scores.
One charter school leader counters that they accept their students by lottery, that the district educates its ELL pupils in a relatively small number of schools with specialized programs, and that the district has the last word on how special education students are educated to insure they are in schools with the proper facilities.
"They don’t tell you that they control special education placement in that way," said Efrain Martinez, superintendent of the Charter Schools for Applied Technologies.
And charters face their own disadvantages. Martinez said when maintenance and transportation funding are included, they still operate on about two-thirds the funding levels of district schools.
Yet they also have one undeniable advantage: Parents engaged in their child’s education, at least to the degree necessary to try to get them out of district schools and into a charter.
Still – arguments over funding and special-needs students aside – charters are doing better while most serve the same population of economically disadvantaged students as the district.
There have to be some lessons there.
Martinez cautions against broad comparisons, saying it’s best to look at demographically similar charter and district schools. OK, that makes sense; but the overall results mean it’s time for someone to take that deeper look.
The idea behind charters, after all, was to allow flexibility to find out what works and then apply those lessons to help all students. The 9- and 10-point overall performance gaps means it’s time for local educators to go to school.