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State Charter School Systems Ranked

The first-ever rankings from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools strive to evaluate quality and other factors.

An advocacy group has released its first state-by-state ranking of public charter school systems, with the District of Columbia and Louisiana claiming the top two positions. Several western states brought up the rear.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which has risen to prominence with its annual rankings of state charter school laws, sought to measure the “health” of each system, as determined by factors such as the size of charter populations, racial demographics, test scores and the use of “innovative” practices such as extended school days or apprenticeship programs. 

But to critics, the rankings do little more than build on the Alliance’s previous work, indicating how friendly a state is to charter schools but not enough about which is truly the best in terms of academic quality. They also argued the rankings set a low bar for academic quality by comparing charter schools with local public districts, many of which are struggling urban schools, rather than with top-performing schools elsewhere. 

Charter schools got their start in Minnesota more than 20 years ago as alternatives to public schools, where teachers could experiment with methods that could reach wider use if proven successful. Charter schools generally receive public funding but have their own management and governance structure, so they’re free to adopt different disciplinary rules or other policies. They’re polarizing because they take money from public schools, which can’t easily lower their costs as they lose per-pupil spending and lack access to additional sources of funding through private donors.

The National Alliance ranked only 25 states and the District of Columbia, places that participated in a 2013 study from a Stanford University research center about academic quality and where at least one percent of students are in charter schools.

The Alliance measured participants across 11 weighted categories. Factors with the highest weight included the share of public schools that are charter schools, the share of public-school students in charter schools, the growth rate of charters, the closure rate of charters (small and consistent was considered the best) and academic quality in both reading and math as measured in the equivalent of “additional days of learning” when compared with traditional public schools. The “additional days” of learning measure comes from the 2013 Stanford study, which sought to convert statistical variation into a more understandable concept of comparison.    

Using that system, the District of Columbia ranked first, followed by Louisiana and Michigan. Nevada was the worst-ranked state, followed by Oregon and Utah. 

In D.C., 44 percent of all students attend charter schools, which produce 72 more days of reading growth and 101 more days in math, according to the report. Louisiana, another state praised by charter-school advocates following the remaking of New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina, scored particularly well because of its high growth rate, the number of poor students its charter schools serve and academic growth compared with other public schools in the state.

Looking at states that performed worst, Nevada and Oregon had lower percentages of students in charter schools, poorer academic growth compared with traditional public schools and lower proportions of ethnic minorities and poor students in their charter schools. In the case of Nevada, though, state lawmakers passed legislation in 2013 strengthening performance requirements, accountability and capital support, so in future years the state should improve, said Todd Ziebarth, a senior vice president at the National Alliance, during a panel discussion held by the Fordham Institute in D.C.

“It takes time to have an impact on authorizers [and] have that impact on schools. We’re optimistic in three or four years you’ll see much better performance in states like Nevada,” he said.

To critics, though, the report does little more than measure the size of charter movements by state, doesn’t go far enough to measure academic quality and rests on faulty assumptions.

“Many of the measures of ‘health of the movement’ are just that – measures of the degree to which charter schools, as a movement, are increasing in number and influence,” said Elaine Weiss, who helps lead education initiatives at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank focused on low-to-moderate-income people. 

The one quality metric comes from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford, which has come under criticism for using composites of public school students gleaned from averages for comparisons with actual charter-school students, for overstating the gains charter school students made compared to traditional public schools and for not controlling for parental differences. Charter schools, for instance, often require more parental involvement, which is difficult for many working parents, and the mere act of placing their child in a charter school means they’re inherently more active in their child’s education.  

When the top three rankings go to places noted for de-regulation, it shows there’s not enough emphasis on both quality and access for all students, particularly those with special needs, said Kevin Welner, a researcher at the National Education Policy Center in Colorado, which has been critical of the Stanford study. He noted that a lengthy Detroit Free Press investigation published recently found little accountability for the $1 billion per year going to charter schools and largely equal performance compared to traditional schools. 

“If a Colorado legislator called me up and asked me if our system should look more like Michigan's, I’d laugh,” he said. 

Bruce Baker, a researcher at Rutgers University, took issue with indicators such as longer school days, which he’s argued in the past are not scalable for public schools that lack additional private resources. Beyond that, comparing charter schools with struggling urban schools around them doesn’t say much about quality on an objective basis, Baker said. “It doesn't take much to ‘outperform’ Louisiana or D.C. schools, especially with selective attrition, etc.,” he explained in an email.

For its part, National Alliance said it wants to include more measures of academic outcomes in future years and begin to make comparisons beyond those between charter schools and the public schools located around them. 

“We hope this is a first cut,” said Greg Richmond, the National Alliance’s CEO, in a statement announcing the report’s release. 

 The full report can be found here

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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