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Charter vs. District Student Demographics — Beyond the Lotteries

Now that the school year has ended, the research and writing season can begin for those of us who study charters. This summer, we’ll be working on updating our 2010 report on student demographics in charters compared to their local district schools, including our analysis of charters’ proportions of special education students and their levels of need (once that data arrives from the state and city.)

In the meantime, though, a few other bloggers have been posting some cautionary essays about the importance of acknowledging the different demographics of students in charters compared to the schools in their neighborhoods. Like charters’ academic performance, those demographics can vary widely across the sector — but given the new charter law’s requirement that all charters in New York State must recruit and retain proportions of high needs students similar to those of their local district schools, it’s worth a reminder of what the research has shown so far.

For example, Matt diCarlo recently revisited Caroline Hoxby’s influential study on NYC charters, which used comparisons of students who won and lost charter admissions lotteries from 2000-2008 to conclude that charters were capable of overcoming the “Harlem-Scarsdale” achievement gap. Lottery-based studies such as Hoxby’s and this recent KIPP study only compare the performance of individual students within the self-selected group whose parents were able to successfully enroll them in admissions lotteries, however — who don’t necessarily reflect the demographics of students in the schools in the charters’ neighborhoods. DiCarlo points out that in Hoxby’s study

The authors compare the racial composition of charter students to that of students throughout the whole city — not to that of students in the neighborhoods where the charters are located, which is the appropriate comparison (one that is made in neither the summary nor the body of the report). For example, NYC charter schools are largely concentrated in Harlem, central Brooklyn and the South Bronx, where regular public schools are predominantly non-white and non-Asian (just like the charters).

Comparing the racial distribution of charter students to that of students in the entire city (including all the neighborhoods with a lower concentration of minorities) doesn’t really tell us what we want to know: Whether charters are serving more minority students than the regular public schools from which they are drawing most of their applicants, and to which they are being compared in this analysis. This comparison is, of course, a bit more difficult to make, but it’s absolutely necessary, especially in a city as large and diverse as New York.

This was exactly the type of comparison we did in our reports last year, which compared charters to schools in nearby community school districts and found that they consistently enrolled smaller proportions of English Language Learners, high needs special education students, and students receiving free lunch. The NYC Department of Education seems to have come to similar conclusions — as we’ve noted, their annual report cards match many charters with “peer schools” with relatively low proportions of high-needs students — and often, district schools have been given higher grades for improving students’ performance.

In addition, Rutgers professor Bruce Baker’s recent examination of the enrollment of free-lunch-eligible students in New York’s KIPP schools compared to the district middle schools in their zip codes in 2009-10 found striking disparities, as shown in these charts:

Percent free lunch, KIPP ZIP codes (10027)

Percent free lunch, KIPP ZIP codes (10451)

Percent free lunch, KIPP ZIP codes (11213)

Overall, these patterns show that those who seek to make arguments regarding charters’ success in educating the “same students” as those in district schools should choose their words carefully. The goal of all of us involved with school reform today is to ensure that every student in New York receives an excellent education, and acknowledging the limitations of the current charter sector and the successes of many district schools in doing so is key to moving forward.



  • 1 Frustrated
    · Jul 18, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    Great post. One question I have is have you looked at the change in demographics at these KIPP schools over time?

    An argument I hear often is that these schools started off with being very successful with a higher % free lunch students and because they’re successful, that number has come down over time because of demand from higher income families and that they shouldn’t be criticized for success.

    They say that the reason why the comparable public school demographics are higher is becasue there is no demand from higher income families because the performance is so bad.

  • 2 Tina Collins
    · Jul 20, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    That’s a great question. I don’t recall seeing any recent studies looking at that exact issue (whether the demographics of entering students change over time at each KIPP school), but I think it’s something we should be able to examine for the NYC schools pretty easily.