Have Charter Schools in Upstate Cities Achieved their Promise?
According to a recent article by Albany Times-Union columnist Chris Churchill, the sponsors of a new Charter school in Schenectady faced a chilly reception from area elected representatives. Churchill wrote, “Before it even opened, the new Destine Preparatory Charter School was denounced by two area politicians, Phil Steck and Angelo Santabarbara. In a joint statement issued when the school was seeking approval from the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, the Assemblymembers derided Destine Prep as “a burden and a diversion.”
The issues faced by the new Schenectady charter school reflect the tension between charter school operators, who see their missions as providing opportunities for students to maximize their potential, and school districts that feel that charter schools divert needed resources from them. Destine Prep describes its mission this way, “At Destine Prep, we are dedicated to creating a welcoming learning environment that offers enriching and rigorous curriculum to all scholars in Schenectady, New York. We are united by our belief that every single child can be prepared for college and empowered for success in life.” But the Assemblymen say, “It is unfair to our School Board and the students striving for success in public school to place the additional burden of a charter school upon them. Charter schools are an idea that did not pan out. As legislators, we will continue to focus on delivering for our public schools, not on unnecessary diversions.”
In an earlier analysis, I found that charter schools in New York City typically outperformed district-operated schools in 2019, the most recent year for which reliable data is available. On average, 16% more charter school students passed New York’s fourth-grade proficiency examinations than those who attended district-operated schools when the percentage of economically disadvantaged students tested was controlled. But charter school performance varied. While many charter schools performed significantly better than the average for all schools, others performed poorly. Some had proficiency rates more than 20% lower than the trend line, controlling for economic disadvantage.
Have charter schools provided the same opportunities for good education to students outside New York City that they have to students in it? This analysis examines that question.
Some Basic Information
Because of the disruption associated with the COVID pandemic, the results reported here are from the 2018-2019 school year. The 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years saw school closures and the heavy use of online learning. As a result, although results are available for the 2021-2022 school year, they are atypical. See, for example, “An Early Look at COVID’s Educational Disruption in New York State.”
District-operated schools outside New York City significantly underperformed those in the city. The trend lines for the percentage of students deemed proficient on the fourth-grade English Language Arts exam for the two groups differed by 21%.
The chart above shows the long-recognized influence of student economic status on student performance. For schools with the smallest percentage of disadvantaged students, in New York City, the passing percentage averaged 90%, while the passing rate was 70% outside the city. For those attending schools with the highest percentage of disadvantaged students, the passing rate was 37% in New York City and 16% outside it.
Students at charter schools in New York City performed better on the grade four English Language Arts Exam than outside it. The pass rate at the trend line for New York City charter schools was 18% higher than for charter schools outside the city. For students at New York City charter schools with the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students, the passing rate was 58%, compared with 40% for charter schools outside the city.
It should be noted that more than two hundred schools were excluded from the analysis because data concerning the percentage of economically disadvantaged students was missing.
Charter School Performance Compared to District School Performance Outside New York City
The performance of all but three of 26 charter schools on the fourth grade English Language Arts exam was above the trend line for district-operated schools outside New York City. But, the difference between charter and district school performance was slight in many cases. The performance gap was more significant for students at schools with high percentages of disadvantaged students than at those with low rates. The difference in the percentage of students passing in schools with high percentages of disadvantaged students was 18%.
Charter schools educate a substantial portion of the student population in some upstate cities. In Albany and Rochester, the schools taught about one-fourth of fourth-grade students tested. In Buffalo, about one-third of tested fourth graders attended charter schools.
At eighty-four percent of charter schools outside New York City, student performance controlling for the percentage of economically disadvantaged students was above the trend line for all schools. For district-operated schools, the rate above the trend was 49%. At forty-two percent of charter schools, the percentage of passing students exceeded expected performance by 20% or more. For district-operated schools, the rate was only 7%. Only 15% of charter schools fell below the predicted percentage based on the percentage of disadvantaged students, compared with 41% at district-operated schools.
Albany School Performance
73% of fourth-grade students tested were economically disadvantaged in Albany. In the rest of the county, 32% of tested students were poor. Student performance in district-operated schools in Albany was strongly related to the percentage of economically disadvantaged students. At the best-performing elementary school in the district, the Montessori Magnet School, 61% of fourth graders passed the English Language Arts exam. The school had a much lower percentage of disadvantaged students – 25% -than other district and charter schools. At the other end of the spectrum, at the worst-performing school – Giffen Memorial Elementary School, 14% passed, but 91% of the students were disadvantaged. The district-operated city schools performed slightly below the level predicted based on the performance of all schools outside New York City, controlling for the percentage of disadvantaged students.
Two of three charter schools in Albany performed far better than expected based on the percentage of economically disadvantaged students. At the Brighter Choice Charter School for Girls, 73% passed, even though 90% of students taking the test were poor. At the Henry Johnson Charter School, 68% passed. 91% of the students taking the test were disadvantaged. At typical schools where 90% of students were economically disadvantaged, only 24% passed.
In Troy, the True North Troy Preparatory School also had results far above those at typical schools with the same level of disadvantaged students. At the school, 63% of students tested passed the fourth grade ELA exam, even though 90% of students tested were disadvantaged. That performance was 40% better than at a typical school with the same percentage of disadvantaged students.
Buffalo School Performance
Buffalo district and charter schools performed close to the student economic disadvantage model’s predictions. Like Albany, most schools in the city had relatively high percentages of economically disadvantaged students – overall, 65% of students tested were economically disadvantaged. At three charter schools, performance was substantially better than expected, but at five, performance was similar to city schools.
At Global Concept Charter School, 65% of students passed, 37% more than the model predicted. At Elmwood Village Charter School, 65% passed, 23% more than the model predicted. At West Buffalo Charter School, 41% passed, 18% more than expected. Two district-operated schools showed strong performance – at Frederick Law Olmsted school, 77% passed, 22% higher than predicted, and at Waterfront Elementary School, 39% passed, 16% higher than expected.
In Niagara Falls, student performance at Niagara Charter School was better than predicted by the economic disadvantage model – 59% passed, 28% higher than expected.
Rochester School Performance
Rochester had the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged fourth-grade students tested of any large city in New York State – 86%. Outside Rochester in Monroe County, 38% of students tested were economically disadvantaged. Given the relationship between disadvantage and student performance, it is not surprising that students in city schools performed poorly on the state exams. At three city elementary schools, Roberto Clementi, Enrico Fermi, and Dr. Charles T. Lunsford, ten percent or less of tested students passed the state English Language Arts Exam. At these schools, all of the students tested were economically disadvantaged. But, it is also notable that at only three of eighteen district-operated schools, students performed as well as or better than predicted by the percentage of economically disadvantaged students tested. At two of five charter schools, student performance was better than expected by the economic disadvantage model.
Students at True North Schools performed strongly, with 65% passing at True North Preparatory School – West Campus, compared with 31% predicted. At True North Preparatory School, 63% passed, compared with 32% predicted by the model. On average, charter schools in Rochester had a lower percentage of economically disadvantaged students than district-operated schools – 77% vs. 86%.
Syracuse School Performance
Eighty-two percent of fourth-grade Syracuse school students who took the ELA exam were economically disadvantaged, compared with 38% in Onondaga County, outside the city. Student performance at district-operated and charter schools was near the predicted percentage based on economic disadvantage. Although the two charter schools included in the study, Southside Academy Charter School and Syracuse Academy of Science, did slightly better than city schools as a group, differences were small, with passing rates only five and six percent better than predicted by the model.
Charter School Performance in Other Locations
Students at several charter schools in other locations performed much better than would be expected based on the percentage of economically disadvantaged students tested. In Yonkers, 84% of students passed the grade four English Language Arts exam, compared with 26% predicted by the economic disadvantage trend model. Sixty-four percent of students at the Riverhead Charter School in Calverton, Long Island, passed; based on the percentage of disadvantaged students, 41% were expected to pass. At the Academy Charter School in Nassau County, 75% passed, 42% more than predicted by the model.
Compared to New York City schools, student performance overall outside the city was weaker. On the fourth grade English Language Arts Exam, the percentage of New York City students at district schools who achieved proficient scores was 21% better than outside the city, controlling for economic disadvantage. For charter schools, the difference was 18%. However, it should be noted that a significant portion of the outperformance of New York City charter schools was associated with Success Academies, which significantly outperformed other city charter schools.
Charter schools outside New York City performed better than district-operated schools. Students at forty-two percent of schools had passing rates on the fourth grade English Language Arts exams that were more than 20% higher than was predicted by the percentage of economically disadvantaged students tested, compared with seven percent at district-operated schools. But performance varied. More than half of charter schools’ performance was within or minus 10% of the predicted level.
Rochester and Syracuse illustrate both the promise and disappointment of charter schools as a remedy for the poor performance of inner-city schools. The cities have among the highest levels of child poverty in New York State and the nation. Student performance at district-operated schools was dismal, with only five to thirty percent of students in most district-operated schools passing the state’s fourth-grade English exam. In Rochester, two True North charter schools provided environments where far higher percentages of students succeeded than in city-operated schools. But, performance at three other Rochester charter schools was similar to those operated by the city. In Syracuse, charter school performance was not significantly better than at district schools.
As is true in New York City, charter schools are not uniform in their approaches to learning or the success of their methods. For that reason, they do not offer an educational panacea. Though many offer excellent educational environments, others are indistinguishable from the inner city schools that continue to disappoint.