April 26, 2012

Apples and Oranges: Comparing Charters, Magnets, and Towns

Data from the State Department of Education suggest that elective, or choice, programs in the state tend to serve smaller percentages of English Language Learner (ELL) students, students with disabilities (SWD), and students eligible for free meals in the National School Lunch Program when compared to the town districts where they are located. Therefore, comparing charters and magnets with local districts can be like comparing “apples with oranges.”

Last month, the CT Mirror looked at special education and ELL student enrollment in their article, “Are charter schools cherry-picking students?” In a related vein, CT Voices for Children was recently asked to evaluate the demographic trends in Connecticut’s magnet and charter schools. Comparing both magnets and charters to local districts, we found that in the 2010-2011 school year:

  • The proportion of ELL students in magnet and charter schools (with a few exceptions) is much lower than the overall proportion of ELL students in the districts where these schools are located.  (Exceptions include the charter school Amistad Academy and the magnet school Dual Language Arts Academy.)
  • The proportion of students with disabilities in magnet and charter schools (with a few exceptions) is smaller than the overall proportion of students with disabilities in the districts where these schools are located.  (Exceptions include the charter school Stamford Academy and the magnet school Public Safety Academy.)
  • Charter and magnet schools (with a few exceptions) tend to have a lower proportion of students eligible for free meals than the overall proportions of students eligible for free meals in the districts where these schools are located.  Concomitantly, charter and magnet schools (with a few exceptions) tend to have a larger proportion of students eligible for reduced meals than the overall proportion of students eligible for reduced meals in the districts where these schools are located.  (Exceptions include schools located in Hamden and Stamford.)  (See our recent report on this topic, as well as a report from the National Education Policy Center)

There are a number of reasons that charter and magnets might serve smaller percentages of higher-need students:

  • These schools often draw from a regional pool of students that may have smaller proportions of students eligible for free lunch, English Language Learners, or students with disabilities than in the host towns,
  • Districts are required to provide transportation, but issues of getting to school may persist for high-need students.
  • The complexity of navigating the choice/lottery systems may screen out families with less access to information about the process.
  • There may be a lack of support or resources for these students.
  • ELL students are not identified in pre-kindergarten, so the grades that are in a particular school might influence the proportion of identified ELL students; (i.e. a school that has grades pre-K-6 instead of K-6).
  • The location of the magnet or charter school in a particular neighborhood or theme of the school may influence which students attend the school.
  • Because inter-district magnet schools located in or near areas with intense racial/ethnic segregation work to reduce racial, ethnic, and economic isolation of students, these schools intentionally lower the proportions of low-income and minority students.

As I suggested in my earlier discussion about ELL students, the state must ensure that students with disabilities and/or very low-income students are considered and supported when it proposes elective programs that may have barriers to access. Second, more research must be done to understand whether students from particular towns are fairly represented in these programs when compared to their home districts. Finally, it is critical to consider these demographics differences before making claims about academic performance, quality, and the ability to replicate elective programs such as magnets and charters.

Also see district-level data on the numbers of students with disabilities, ELL students, and students eligible for free and reduced price meals in charter and magnet schools.

Issue Area:
Education