Charters Dominate Achievement in Chicago

In Chicago last year, the teachers union went on strike to protest a new contract that would use student test scores to evaluate teachers, leading to possible school closures. The real heart of the dispute was that the Chicago Teachers’ Union opposed closing failing public schools and allowing new charter schools to open in their places. But analysis of student scores at the end of the 2011-2012 school year should give the teachers more reason to fear, because it shows the top ten open-enrollment schools are all non-union charter schools. Further, says the conservative Illinois Policy Institute’s Josh Dwyer, when teachers complain that charter schools cherry-pick the best students, they’re getting it wrong.

A record number of charter schools opened nationwide for the 2012-2013 school year. There were 400 newly-approved charter schools bringing the total to about 6,000, and nearly 5% of US students are in a charter school.

But when charter school achievement is touted, whether it’s graduation rates, test scores, or daily attendance, public schools always point out that they can’t select their students. Students with learning disabilities, uncooperative attitudes, poverty, family problems and juvenile delinquency are left in the public system. However, only some charter schools are selective. Funded by public money, many must accept students on an open-enrollment basis by lottery. They are likely to end up getting many poor, troubled or learning disabled students.

Charter high school students, like other students in CPS, come primarily from low income backgrounds (91 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch), represent mostly racial minorities (60 percent African-American and 35 percent Hispanic) and must overcome a range of challenges (9 percent are English Language Learners and 12 percent have special needs).

The Illinois Policy Institute used the ACT scores only from these open-enrollment charter schools and Chicago’s traditional public schools. Charter schools, mostly run by the Noble Network, had the top 10 average ACT scores, with the best public schools only tying for 10th place. Strikingly, these top ten schools, including the public ones, all have very high rates of low-income students. The school with the highest poverty rate, 94.8%, came in second with average ACT scores of 21.4. The one top-scoring charter school with a less severe poverty rate still counted over 75% of its students as below the poverty line. Only Chicago Academy and Kenwood High School could compete with these schools.

Tracking achievement over six years, the IPI notes that the best charter schools started out at about the same ACT score level with the best public schools. In both 2007 and 2008, the average scores of the best ten of each type of school were nearly identical, with the public schools narrowly ahead. But in 2009, the charter school block pulled ahead, and it climbed steadily until the best average ACT score was a full 2 points ahead of the best average ACT score of public schools.

The IPI points out that more charter schools could be opened to provide these benefits to more needy students.

Charter schools offer a real alternative to Chicago parents. They are places where parents can rest assured knowing that their child is receiving the education they deserve. It is unfortunate then that only 41 charter schools have been approved so far – 34 still remain open. These openings are not due to lack of demand, but to the actions of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, who work day-in and day-out to make sure no more charters open in the city.

There are sure to be many more power struggles with the Teachers’ Union before the matter is settled so easily.