Few issues in education inspire more debate than the issue of charter schools vs. traditional public schools. And few places is that debate more heated — or more partisan — than in Florida.
Charter school proponents argue that publicly funded, privately managed schools offer a better alternative in areas with low-performing neighborhood schools. Detractors say charters are bleeding traditional public schools of funding and aren’t subjected to the same level of oversight, allowing some to squander public funds and let down students.
In what is sure to spark more controversy, the Florida Department of Education recently released a report showing that the state’s charter school students outperformed their peers on a host of standardized tests. In most subjects and for most age groups, a greater percentage of charter students passed state tests than their peers at traditional public schools, according to the department’s analysis of more than 4.2 million test scores from the 2015-2016 school year.
Here are the key take-aways from the report:
1. A tenth of Florida students attend charter schools
For all of the emphasis charter schools get in state politics, fewer than 10 percent of Florida’s nearly 2.8 million public school students attend the schools. During the 2015-2016 school year, close to 271,000 students went to charters, compared to more than 2.5 million at traditional public schools. The proportion is greater in South Florida, where close to 17 percent of Miami-Dade’s public school children went to charters during the 2015-2016 school year — around 59,000 students in a district of approximately 357,000.
Although their share of the public school market is still small, charters are attracting a growing number of students. Over the past decade, charter school enrollment has increased almost 200 percent statewide, according to the report. In Miami-Dade, enrollment has more than tripled over the past 10 years.
About 55 percent of Florida’s charter schools are rated A or B by the state, a grade based partly on test results and graduation rates, compared to 44 percent of traditional public schools. At the other end of the spectrum, about 6 percent of Florida’s charters are F schools, compared to 3 percent of traditional public schools.
2. Overall, poor and minority students score better at charter schools
The state’s finding that a greater percentage of charter school students pass state standardized tests in most subjects was especially true among Hispanic and low-income students.
While the reading test pass rate for high school students at charter schools was six percentage points higher overall than at traditional public schools, for example, the difference for low-income high schoolers was 10 percentage points and for Hispanic teenagers it was 12. The difference for African-American high schoolers was smaller — about 4 percentage points. The results were similar on state math tests, although the difference between the two groups of students was smaller overall.
The achievement gap — the difference between how white and minority students did on the tests — was also smaller among charter school students in most cases.
The findings are music to the ears of charter school supporters. “Twenty years after the launch of the first charter schools in Florida, results like this latest state report show the movement is definitely working,” said Robert Haag, the president of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, in an e-mail.
3. The difference is not as big for white students
Differences between the pass rates for charter and traditional public school students were smaller for white students. In fact, on some state tests, white students at traditional public schools outperformed their charter school peers. A slightly higher percentage of white high school and elementary school students passed state math and science tests, for example.
There were also grade levels and subject areas in which students at traditional public schools did better overall than their charter school peers. High school students at traditional public schools did slightly better on state science and social studies tests, for example, although charter school students did slightly better overall on these subjects in the younger grades.
4. The reasons for differing results are complex
The report doesn’t offer any explanations for the differences in student test performance, but school choice advocates say more flexibility at charter schools could be one key reason.
“Charter schools may have specific areas of focus and may be smaller schools, which allows for greater flexibility and the potential for increased attention to individual student needs,” Haag said in an e-mail. If a large number of students at one charter school are immigrants, for example, the school can add extra English programs and other services without wading through a lot of red tape, Haag said.
This flexibility also makes charters more nimble in fixing failed strategies, said Lynn Norman-Teck, the executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance. “The schools can tweak their curriculum when they see something is not working,” she said.
Charters also tend to attract students with parents who are actively involved in their education, said Chris Norwood, founder of the Florida Association of Independent Public Schools, in an e-mail. That extra push from parents could be one factor contributing to the higher pass rates for low-income and minority students in charter schools.
“The least controversial statement in public education is that parent involvement in schools improves student achievement, reduces absenteeism, improves social skills and restores parents’ confidence in their children’s education,” Norwood said. “In low-income communities parent involvement is even more important because engaged parents don’t have the luxury of generational economic success.”
Some charters require parents to volunteer a certain number of hours every semester or ask families for other commitments of time — a demand that charter critics say also may exclude some working class families.
5. Charter demographics don’t match traditional public schools
For those who work in the traditional public school system, comparing test scores from students at neighborhood schools against their charter school peers is inherently unfair.
The single biggest issue driving performance gaps: Critics argue that many charters can cultivate higher performing kids from families with more resources and weed out more challenging students through their application process and school policies — like ones demanding volunteer time from parents. Traditional public schools must, by law, accept all students.
“It’s not apples to apples,” said United Teachers of Dade president Karla Hernandez-Mats. “We do know that there is cherry-picking involved. We know that the charter schools can expel schools for disruptive behavior...They have standards for attendance. We can’t take those types of actions and we don’t.”
The report does show some differences in the demographics of student populations. Florida’s charter schools as a whole have a higher percentage of Hispanic students and a slightly lower percentage of white and African-American students than traditional public schools, according to the report. They also have a smaller percentage of low-income students — about 49 percent compared to almost 62 percent in traditional public schools — and a lower percentage of students with disabilities.
The differences are greater in Miami-Dade. Close to 71 percent of Miami-Dade’s traditional public school students are low-income, compared to 53 percent at charter schools, according to the district’s 2016 data. Traditional public schools also have double the proportion of students with disabilities.
Haag of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools rejects the idea of charters trying to exclude certain classes of kids. “It’s a myth that charter schools cherry pick the best students,” he said. “We actually take many of the lowest performing children and work hard to help them become life-long learners who will be successful in their future careers.”
6. Is there a better way to compare schools?
Gisela Feild, the administrative director who oversees data analysis for the Miami-Dade school district, said comparing demographically similar students at charters and neighborhood schools would be a more accurate way to compare performance. The idea is that would smooth out economic or other advantages that have nothing to do with teaching methods or school quality.
“When you look at the performance of just all the charter schools as a whole you’re masking the differentiation in the demographics,” she said.
To compare charter and traditional public school students in Miami-Dade, Feild created a comparison group of demographically similar students and performed a statistical analysis using test scores from the 2015-2016 school year. She found that at most charter schools the scores were “not significantly different from our regular school students in reading and math.”
But at the end of the day, whether its a local report or a state one, pitting charters against traditional public schools misses the point, said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, a staunch advocate for school choice. It’s more about finding the right fit for each child.
“It’s easy to jump up and down and claim that as a victory, but ... you have to take that report with a grain of salt,” he said. “It really loses sight of the real attractive portion of that — which is the parent having the choice on the individual kid.”
Miami Herald staff writer Kristen Clark contributed to this report.