Duval County has 35 charter schools serving nearly 20,000 students. Superintendent Vitti said charters bring down district average scores on state assessments. In the Florida Times Union article, Vitti said “I do want to raise a concern about charter school performance”.
There is more to this story.
As you might expect, I compared the charter and traditional public schools demographic data. I was surprised at what I found. Not only were Duval charter student achievement scores lower than for those in traditional public schools, the data provided no excuses. Even more puzzling, the Florida Public Accountability Report for 2014-15 showed dramatic drops in the percentage of charter school enrollments classified as economically disadvantaged in Duval County between 2013-14 and 2014-15. The rules changed. This could be good.
A revision in the federal free and reduced lunch (FRL) qualification process allowed schools to automatically enroll students in the FRL program if they qualified for another federal aid program e.g. Medicaid, homeless, Head Start etc. These families had lower incomes than others in the FRL program, and they no longer had to produce the income data forms that are required by higher income families. Duval charters seem to reported only the automatic qualifiers and the much lower percentages of economically disadvantaged students was the result.
This is a data reporting issue that can have large consequences. It also gives useful information.
The 2014-15 drop in the percentage of economically disadvantaged Duval charter school students ranged from 66 to nine points. Small drops were due to low percentages to begin with. For example, Seaside, a predominately higher income, mostly white charter, dropped from 11% to zero percent. Somerset Eagle, which serves mostly black students (84%), dropped from 48% to zero. Clearly, Duval charters tend not to represent the district population.
In other words, the data changed, not the students. What the data revealed, however, is how few students who automatically qualify for federal aid programs enroll in Duval charter schools. This is part of the complaint that charters are ‘creaming’ students by not enrolling those whose need is greatest. The complaint is justified.
Nevertheless Duval charter school students do not compete with traditional public schools. Teacher data provided in the Public Accountability Report may give clues. Comparisons between charters and traditional schools with ‘Highly Qualified Teachers’ are telling. Most charter school teachers in core subjects (~90%) are not classified as highly qualified, while only 18% in traditional schools are not. It may be that Duval’s low salaries discourage teacher recruitment and retention in charters where salaries typically are even lower.
The Duval data are not replicated in all other districts. Differences in how data are now reported make comparisons of which students charters serve meaningless. Some also claim that FRL lunch statistics are subject to fraud since the amount of federal money allocated is tied to the number of qualified students. The Brookings Institute provides a good analysis of the FRL program data and cautions that policy makers and researchers like CREDO Institute do not have valid data on which they can rely to make comparisons.
This data problem must be fixed. It is difficult enough to figure out what to believe. Wouldn’t it be nice if all schools had to report the percentage of ‘at risk’ students they serve. Charters increase racial and economic segregation, and accurate data will make that clear.