Perspective | To understand the state’s charter schools, first, focus on facts

North Carolina’s 2019 Annual Charter School Report has been the subject of recent controversy and debate, with some suggesting that removing or clarifying demographic data from the original draft report leaves the state without essential information. This view is understandable — but it is inaccurate and incomplete.  

First, it’s helpful to understand the chronology and process behind this report. The Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) conducted its first review of the 2019 annual report on Jan. 2, 2020. Following that review, the report headed to the State Board of Education for final approval and then over to the General Assembly for the February deadline.

Statewide demographic enrollment data on charter and district schools have consistently been reported in this annual report. Some have suggested that the report should evaluate racial/ethnic diversity in charter schools more closely. While all CSAB members agreed on the importance of a closer evaluation, members questioned the methodology used in the draft report. CSAB thus requested a deeper dive into the data.

Essentially, CSAB believed the metrics used in the draft report were extremely limited. The draft report used only a single metric to assess diversity — assessing whether or not a charter school’s demographics were within +/- 10% of the average demographics of the entire school system for the county in which the charter is located. The reality is that comparing individual schools to system averages is misleading and does not account sufficiently for a range of factors influencing demographic data.

Consider that schools serving more minority and underprivileged students do not meet the average. A school in a minority neighborhood might match neighboring district schools, but it will not match the system’s average. The school-to-system comparison thus does not tell the whole story; in fact, it may even tell the wrong story. This is true whether the school being evaluated is a district school or a charter school.

Due to the state-imposed deadline of Feb. 15, CSAB suggested removing the limited data and explaining the complexity of reporting while still advocating for additional research. To be clear: At no time did anyone suggest simply removing data and not conducting further research.

Charter schools make efforts to reflect the population of the local system in which they are located. However, it is essential to remember that charter schools are public schools of choice with no enrollment boundary. In fact, families often cross county lines to attend these public schools of choice.

This leads to another factor of reporting complexity when comparing charters to a specific county school system: Charter schools may draw students from multiple counties and thus may not have student enrollments that are reflective, exclusively, of the county system in which these schools are located.

Charter schools continue to work hard nonetheless to ensure they offer opportunities to diverse and at-risk students. More than 50,000 students of color are now enrolled in charter schools, and the proportion of African American students enrolled in charters is slightly higher than in district schools — 26% for charters versus 25% for district schools.

Moreover, more than 50% of charter schools use their limited operating funds to pay for buses even though these schools do not receive transportation funding, and the state’s transportation grant program has not been renewed. Each charter school has a transportation plan in its charter agreement, whether or not buses are used. In addition, last year, 21 schools requested permission to implement weighted lotteries giving priority to low-income and at-risk students.

Reporting the percentage of economically disadvantaged students enrolled in charters has also been an area of concern, and the annual report acknowledges CSAB’s efforts to find a more accurate way of reporting these numbers. While every charter school must have a lunch plan for students who cannot afford lunch, many charter schools do not participate in the National School Lunch Program due to the amount of paperwork and the mandates from federal bureaucracy involved in this process. Therefore, families self-report if they choose. This means that the overall percentage of economically disadvantaged students in charter schools may be underrepresented — offering yet another instance of a data point that is more difficult to report accurately than one might think.

What do we know for sure? This year’s annual report shows that many charter schools are leading the way when it comes to serving minority and possibly at-risk students. Across every metric, and at every grade level, the report shows that African American and Hispanic children attending charter schools perform better on end-of-year tests than students attending district schools.

In elementary school, the percentage of African American charter school students scoring at or above grade level was 6 points higher for English and 2 points higher for math than in district schools. Compared to students in district schools, the percentage of Hispanic charter school students scoring at or above grade level was 12 points higher in English and 3 points higher in math.

The positive effects of charter schools on students are cumulative. By middle school, the percentage of students scoring at or above grade level in English was nearly 12 points higher for African American students attending charters and 16 points higher for Hispanic students, compared to district schools. In math we see 9 points higher for African American students and 10 points higher for Hispanic students. According to the annual report, 11 charter schools had a student of color population of at least 70% and exceeded growth — some by a wide margin.

Mark Twain once said that facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable. Surely, his quote applies to this current debate about demographic data. Understanding the methodology behind data reporting is fundamental if the general public is to be educated accurately and fully about the merits and challenges of charter schools.

Lindalyn Kakadelis is the executive director of the North Carolina Coalition for Charter Schools. She served on the state’s Charter School Advisory Board and chaired CSAB’s performance committee until Jan. 31, 2020.

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