Charter movement’s U-shape

Charter schools in California tend to be bipolar, with disproportionate numbers of very high and very low performing schools, according to a newly released analysis by the California Charter Schools Association.

In duplicating a pattern that it found last year, in its first “Portrait of a Movement” annual report, the Charter Schools Association renewed its call for local authorizers to focus attention on academic achievement and to not renew the poorest performers on the state’s Academic Performance Index. CCSA has identified 29 schools – about 5 percent of the state’s eligible charters – that fail to meet the minimum academic criteria of three measures; CCSA is recommending closure of the 10 that are up for charter renewal by the end of this school year. (Small schools and schools classified as serving highly mobile and at-risk students, known as ASAM schools, were excluded from the list.)

One of CCSA’s metrics, which is highlighted in the Portrait, is the Similar Students Measure, or SSM. It predicts a school’s API after factoring in student demographics – including family income, parent education level, mobility, ethnicity, and percent English Language Learner and Special Education students – and then plots whether schools exceed or fall short of the prediction. It’s the SSM, a schoolwide counterpart to the value-added metric that projects a teacher’s impact based on students, that shows concentrations of charter schools at the upper and lower ends in comparison  with non-charter schools. By taking into account the student body served, particularly in schools with large proportions of disadvantaged students, the SSM gives a richer picture than the raw API score alone, according to the Association.

Charter schools form a 'U' based on their predicted API scores, with large clusters of low- and high-performing schools, compared with district schools, when defined in 5 percentile groups.  Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, page 4.)
Charter schools form a 'U' based on their predicted API scores, with large clusters of low- and high-performing schools, compared with district schools, when defined in 5 percentile groups. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, p. 4.)

Based on three years of student testing of 789 charter schools, the SSM showed that one out of eight charter schools (12.7 percent, or 100 schools) fell in the bottom 5th percentile of their predicted API, compared with only 4.2 percent, or 312 schools, of non-charter schools (see graph and chart). If they had performed purely as predicted, only 39 charters would have been in the bottom 5th percentile.

Nearly one out of five (19 percent, or 150 schools) fell in the bottom 10th percentile of predicted API scores, compared with 9.1 percent, or 673 schools, of non-charters.

At the other end, one out of seven charters (14.7 percent, or 116 schools), fell in the top 5th percentile band and more than one out of five (21.8 percent, or 172 schools) were in the top 10th percentile. Had they performed as predicted, again only 39 charter schools would have been in the top 5th percentile. By comparison, 4 percent of non-charters (295 schools) are in the top 5th percentile and 9.1 percent (673 schools) are in the top 10th percentile.

It’s the “U” pattern of top and bottom schools, so visible on a graph, that CCSA wants to turn into a “J.”

The percentage of charter school students in the highest performing charter schools (13.4 percent of those tested in 2011) far exceeded the percentage attending the lowest performing charters (7.5 percent). Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, page 6. Click to enlarge.
The percentage of charter school students in the highest performing charter schools (13.4 percent of those tested in 2011) far exceeded the percentage attending the lowest performing charters (7.6 percent). Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, p. 6.)

By another measure, it’s already happening. Nearly twice as many charter students attend the top 5th percentile of schools, based on their predicted API scores, than attend the bottom 5th percentile of charter schools: 30,350 students or 13.4 percent of charter students attending the highest-performing schools, versus 17,115 or 7.6 percent of charter students attending the lowest-performing schools.

The 'U' becomes more of a 'J' when the measure is the percentage of students in high versus low performing charters, based on their predicted API scores. That's because fewer students are enrolled in the least performing schools. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, page 5.)
The 'U' becomes more of a 'J' when the measure is the percentage of students in high- versus low-performing charters, based on their predicted API scores. That's because fewer students are enrolled in the lowest-performing schools. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of a Movement, p. 5.)

That’s because the lowest-performing schools are smaller, an indication they may be having a harder time with finances and enrollments (see chart and graph).

Success with low-income students

The Portrait offers a further look at Calfornia’s 987 charter schools:

  • Charters operated by a nonprofit Charter Management Organization – like KIPP, Aspire Public Schools, Rocketship Education, and Alliance for College Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles – were concentrated at the top, with 40 percent of charters operated by a CMO in the top 10th percentile of Predicted API measure. Independent, solo operations tended to be clustered in the lower 10th percentile.
  • While there are high-achieving independent study and virtual or online charter schools, a disproportionate number are clustered at the bottom. Of the 25 schools identified as online charters, eight (32 percent) fell in the bottom 10th percentile, with three or one-eighth in the top 10th percentile. It’s still a small sample, the report notes, so more research is needed.
  • Charters serving primarily low-income children are doing well academically. Nearly a quarter of the 108,000 students tested in schools where at least half of the families qualified for free or reduced lunches attend schools in the top 5th percentile of schools. Thirty-five percent of students attend schools in the top 10 percentile  compared with 11 percent in the bottom 10th percentile of schools.
Data comparing Oakland's charter schools to Oakland Unified schools show that nearly half of charter school students attend schools in the top 10 percentile, far exceeding their predicted API score. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of A Movement, page 36.)
Data comparing Oakland's charter schools to Oakland Unified schools show that nearly half of charter school students attend schools in the top 10th percentile, far exceeding their predicted API score. Click to enlarge. (Source: 2012 Portrait of A Movement, page 36.)

The Portrait highlights the success of charters in Oakland, where they comprise 23 percent (29 schools) of Oakland’s 126 schools and 19 percent of its 31,700 students. The report credits Oakland Unified’s “active oversight” and its “rigorous charter review process containing clear and transparent standards for approval and renewal.” A surprising 48 percent of charter students in Oakland attend a charter whose Predicted API score fell in the top 10th percentile, compared with 6 percent of students in district schools; only 4 percent of Oakland charter students attend a school in the bottom 10th percentile.

Weeding out lowest performers

The Similar Students Model is one of three metrics that CCSA uses to determine which schools to recommend for charter non-renewal. The other two are the absolute API score (must be over 700) and growth in API (minimum of 50 points over three years). CCSA says it invites charters to make the case why they shouldn’t be on the list by presenting  other data on student achievement. A few have taken them up on the offer, says Jed Wallace, CEO of CCSA. And CCSA says that it visited most, though not all, low-performing charters last year.

There’s been little change over the past decade in the concentration of low-performing charters. If its recommendations were followed, as charters come up for renewal, the number of charters clogging the bottom 10th percentile could be significantly reduced over the next seven years, the organization asserts.

But CCSA’s methodology and its criteria have met resistance, within the ranks of the community and outside of it. Eric Premack, executive director of the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center, criticized the use of self-reported demographic data on income and family education and the focus on API and California Standardized Tests, which he calls a crude measure of a school’s performance.

Premack’s criticism may have resonated where it counts. CCSA spent months negotiating with Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley to have the minimum API score of 700 and its three-year growth target incorporated into AB 440, on charter revocations.

But after a two-hour meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown, Brownley pulled it and another bill on charter accountability last September, shortly before they were to go to Brown for his signature. No one has said why, but Brown, who started two charter schools in Oakland, made it clear in a veto of a bill sponsored by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg last year that he wants to de-emphasize API and test scores as a measure of a school’s performance and look at qualitative measures, including school inspections.

Nearly 1,000 charter schools in state

With a net addition of 70 schools this year, 7 percent of California students – about one in 14 students – now attend a charter school. In Los Angles Unified, it’s more than one in 10 students; in Oakland, it’s one in five.

The California Charter Schools Association released its annual census on Tuesday. There are now 982 charters in the state, the most in the nation. One hundred started this fall ­despite a very inhospitable climate for opening new schools; in addition, 30 closed.

“In spite of the challenges, charters continue to open,” said Jed Wallace, CCSA president and CEO. “This speaks to the momentum of the charter movement.” And that is expected to continue next fall, with dozens of  schools in the pipeline, he said.

New schools, especially those that roll out a few grades each year, feel the squeeze. Late state tuition payments have pinched all public schools, but particularly charters that lack access to cheaper lines of credit. Between 50 and 60 charters this year and next will get federal startup loans, but they’ve been late, too, leading some charter leaders to take out second mortgages or take huge pay cuts, Wallace said.

Charters in California are a county-city phenomenon, with few in the suburbs. There are small rural and independent study charters and there’s a large and growing number of urban charters for low-income minority students run by charter management organizations (CMOs) like KIPP, Aspire Public Schools, Green Dot Public Schools, and Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools.

Still, single, one-off charters remain dominant, with 577 charters; there are 257 charters run by CMOs, and 142 charters that are part of a decentralized network.

There are 200 charters in Los Angeles Unified alone, where CCSA has sued over access to school facilities provided to charters without charge under Proposition 39. Charter schools there match district demographics in some respects, and fall short in others. L.A. charters serve larger numbers of African Americans (they comprise 17 percent of the charter school population in Los Angeles, compared with 8.8 percent in the district); about the same proportion of Hispanic students (60 percent vs. 63 percent of the district population); but fewer English learners (21 percent vs. 31 percent districtwide) and students with disabilities, who are generally more expensive to educate (8 percent of Los Angeles Unified charter students, according to CCSA, or 6 percent according to the Los Angeles Times, compared with  12 percent districtwide).

The growth in charters parallels what appears to be the public’s favorable impression of charters. In a USC/Dornsife poll on education issues released on Tuesday, 48 percent of the 1,500 respondents agreed with the statement that charter schools provide a higher quality education than traditional public schools, while 24 percent disagreed; 52 percent of respondents with children said they would send their own child to a charter school (see page 22 of the poll).

There was one cautionary note: Asked whether the state should spend more money increasing the number of charter schools or improving public schools, respondents chose investing in public schools by a three-to-one margin.

Wallace criticized the wording of the question, because it failed to state that charter schools are public schools, and didn’t include a third option: spend more money on charters and district schools.

Charter wins Prop 39 ruling (updated)

Long-running hostility between a high-performing charter school and a wealthy, high-achieving district in the Bay Area has led to a state Court of Appeal ruling that further clarifies the right of charters to comparable district facilities.

In a unanimous, unambiguous decision overturning a District Court ruling, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Appellate District ruled that the Los Altos School District failed to offer Bullis Charter School adequate space because it did a faulty comparison with what was available in its other schools. ** Update: The Los Alto School District trustees voted 4-0 on Monday to appeal the decision to the State Supreme Court, according to the Los Altos Patch (see below).

The Bullis case was the latest of about a half-dozen Court of Appeal interpretations of Proposition 39, mostly favoring charter schools. Prop 39 is the complex law voters approved in 2000 that requires a school district to “make available, to each charter school … facilities sufficient for the charter school to accommodate all of the charter school‘s in-district students in conditions reasonably equivalent to those in which the students would be accommodated if they were attending other public schools of the district.”

The case centered on the basis for determining what constitutes “reasonably equivalent.” Prop 39 doesn’t require that each and every space offered to charters be identical to other district schools, the court said. But it does require that districts  acknowledge these differences in making a full and  accurate comparison considering the range of a school’s space needs. As Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, observed, “Size matters but it isn’t everything,” particularly if a charter is offered qualitatively better facilities.

However, districts must make a good faith effort with no playing cute to deny the charter its due.

Miscalculations and mistakes

Los Altos District didn’t do that. It made “mistakes” in reporting the outdoor lot sizes of five comparison schools by more than 50 percent on average. It undercalculated  the needs of Bullis’ library; it failed to pro-rate the outdoor space Bullis shared with Eagan Junior High, since Bullis was restricted to using a soccer field 40 percent of the time. It counted as district space provided to Bullis a multipurpose room that Bullis raised the money to build. It chose the smallest room size in the district, instead of an average room size, in the comparison.

In a footnote to the decision, the judges said “there is certainly evidence in the record” from which a finding could be made that the district acted in bad faith, though the court “declined to do so here.” (Prop 39 does not mete out penalties for bad faith, though courts could award lawyers’ fees at some point, and in the case of Los Altos, they would be huge.)

The court outlined general criteria that districts must follow in responding to a facilities request under Prop 39. Few districts have the quality facilities found in Los Altos, so it’s all relative. Still, districts must must:

  • Select appropriate district-run schools to use as a comparison group with the charter school,
  • Factor in three categories of space (teaching, specialized teaching, and non-teaching space such as libraries and day care facilities provided at other schools) in the comparison schools; and
  • Consider the site size of the comparison schools.

Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Assn., says he is hopeful that the Bullis decision would lead to a common-sense application of Prop 39. “There is an emerging consensus (among courts) that districts have not been doing what they should have in terms of standards of reasonable equivalency.”

Still fewer than half of the state’s 900-plus charter schools have sought free facilities under Prop 39. The Association is suing Los Angeles Unified, which has cited a shortage of space in not responding to some charters’ requests. And there remain inventive ways that districts can circumvent Prop 39,  so the Bullis ruling is not likely to end lawsuits, maybe not even at Bullis.

Founded seven years ago by Los Altos Hills parents when the district closed Bullis Elementary School, Bullis got its charter, on appeal, from the Santa Clara County Board of Education, which renewed it last month. It’s now a K-8 charter serving about 10 percent of students in Los Altos, and has a wait list.

Ken Moore, chairman of the Bullis board, said that the school is cramped and lacks a functioning library and eighth grade science lab. Students have been kicked out of using the Egan gym.

Moore is optimistic that, with the oversight of Santa Clara County District Court, where the case will return, Los Altos will provide adequate facilities next year. By redrawing school boundaries, the district could  open up more space at Egan and solve the problem, he said.

But while there may be a space shortage at Bullis, there hasn’t been a shortage of money for lawyers in Los Altos. No one’s betting this lawsuit will be the last.

** “The decision not only impairs school districts from exercising their judgment, balance interests, and make decisions in the best interests of all students, it provides a windfall to charter schools, affording them greater space than afforded students attending district schools,” according to the district announcement. Board President Bill Cooper added in the statement,  “As much as this court might wish to cast this process as strictly formulaic, in practice, the allocation of resources under the standard of “reasonably equivalent” does not neatly fit into a by-the-numbers approach.”

Dissension within charter ranks

A multimillion dollar gift from the Walton Family Foundation (see accompanying post) will arm the California Charter Schools Assn. against its many foes, but its immediate challenge is a family feud – a split with the other chief charter advocate in California, the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center.

The Center posted a webinar Tuesday by its executive director, Eric Premack, in an eleventh-hour effort to defeat three CCSA-backed bills that are nearing passage. The bills – SB 645, AB 440, and AB 360 – represent a negotiated compromise with  Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, a Santa Monica Democrat who chairs the Assembly Education Committee.

SB 645 and AB 440 await action Thursday in the Legislature’s Appropriations Committees, the last stop before final floor votes. Both would set higher academic thresholds for charter renewals (go here for my earlier detailed explanation), out of recognition that poorly performing charters have continued to operate and get renewed. Charters that don’t meet one of three criteria – a 700 API, a 50 point growth in API over the past three years, or a rank of at least 6 out of 10 among demographically similar schools – would need to prove their case before the State Board of Education. Premack argues that the criteria would ensnare charters serving at-risk students.

Premack is especially critical of a provision in AB 440 that CCSA CEO Jed Wallace asserts would give charters more flexibility to target who they will serve. Under current law, charters must serve student populations reflective of the district, although the law also recognizes the benefits of reaching out to underserved minorities.

Charters in general have been criticized for underserving English learners and special education students.

AB 440 would enable charter petitions to focus on district, community, or specific student groups. Premack argues that districts could set their own priorities or hold it against charters if students picked by lotteries don’t meet the targets. Wallace said the criticisms are either wrong or overblown.

AB 360 would impose new requirements for charters to comply with open meetings, public records, and conflict of interest laws, with exceptions that CCSA fought for. Premack argues current laws should be best left alone.

Wallace said the tougher academic requirements and the compromises with Brownley are in the movement’s interest. In the webinar, Premack said that “the Troika” of bills represents  “a poor strategic move” at a time when charter supporters should be united to oppose a raft of anti-charter bills.