Finally, some in-depth media reporting on why students leave charters

Not all students welcome in chartersCharter schools have been legal in Illinois for 15 years. Big wigs from Oprah to Mayor Daley to Fed Ed Head Arne Duncan to President Obama talk as though charters are the answer to public school problems. The Chicago Tribune crows incessantly about charters’ waiting lists, “100% graduation rates,” and “innovations.”

PURE wasn’t originally opposed to charters, though they have never met the standards we wanted to see added to state law back in 1994 — requirements that charters have open neighborhood attendance boundaries, elected Local School Councils, and union staff.

But we’ve become more cynical about charters as the hype and outright lies about them have forced us to break out the hip waders. And we’ve seen how “charter success” has become the main weapon politicians use to humiliate and threaten regular public schools. 

And then there was the “Waiting for Superman” charter hype-apalooza.

In response, PURE has been out there telling the truth about charters for several years now. Our information comes from research reports, but also from parents, who have told us how they and their children have been treated at some charters. Some families are simply discouraged from enrolling their children at all, while other students are “counseled out” when they don’t meet the school’s “standards.”

Our report on charter accountability offered further proof that charters operate on a different playing field from regular schools, which must accept all students.

Others, like my fellow Parents Across America co-founders Caroline Grannan and Sharon Higgins, have done important work busting charter myths, but our voices have rarely been joined by any in the more mainstream media. 

Disturbing charter data

Finally, WBEZ and Catalyst have taken a closer look at some Chicago charters and have come up with some disturbing data. For example:

  • One out of every 10 charter school students who
    were enrolled in 2009 either transferred to another school or otherwise
    failed to return in the fall of 2009.
  • An internal CPS memo provides evidence suggesting that students are more
    likely to leave charters….The memo also
    states that students who transferred were more likely to have lower test
    scores.
  • Charter schools expelled 146 students in 2009, or 5 of every 1,000—a
    higher rate of expulsion than traditional schools, which posted an
    expulsion rate of 1.5 for every 1,000 students.
  • In 85 percent of charter school cases, students were expelled for less
    serious offenses that are not eligible for expulsion under CPS rules.

According to Catalyst, “magnet schools are comparable to charter schools, with lotteries for
coveted seats and no attendance boundaries….Yet a far higher percentage of students
leave charter schools.”

WBEZ and Catalyst also reported that some charters assess fees and fines for a variety of things, from tardiness to “credit recovery.”

Parental choice?

Catalyst found support among charter parents for the stricter
discipline and other rules. This is not surprising. Many parents think
that charter schools are actually inexpensive private schools. Others
are simply happy to have their children in a school where less motivated
or more behaviorally-challenged students are pushed out. It’s generally
the parents of more challenging students who aren’t satisfied, and it’s
pretty easy to blame the problems on those parents and let the charter
school off the hook. 

Charter accountability far too weak

But offering a private school education in a public school setting was not the legal rationale for charters. In fact, charters are, by law, supposed to “increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for at risk pupils.” 

Catalyst says, “To date, there has been no comprehensive analysis by CPS of why students
transfer from charter schools, despite anecdotal complaints from some
parents and activists that charters push out students, especially
struggling students. CEO Ron Huberman dismisses the accusations against
charters as ‘more myth than reality.’ He says data show that students
who are forced out of charter schools are exceptions, but his office did
not produce data to back up that claim
” (emphasis added).

At the very least, charters are clearly adding to the problem of student transiency, which research shows can lead to lower academic achievement. At worst, charters are deliberately manipulating their student enrollment to boost test scores and get rid of unwanted students.

PURE believes that state law and CPS must require charters to report on the numbers of and reasons for student attrition and transfers. Our charter accountability report also called for charters to have the added oversight of elected Local School Councils. These changes should have happened a long time ago, before so many children’s lives were disrupted.

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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.