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New Study Confirms UFT Report’s Findings on ELLs in Charters

The Journal of School Choice recently published an article in which researchers Jack Buckley and Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj confirmed the UFT’s findings in 2010 that charter schools in New York City enrolled a lower proportion of limited English proficient (LEP) students than the average district school in 2007-08. Overall, they find that among the city’s charters from 2006-2008, “in the case of the LEP proportions, there is a large group of schools with very few, a handful with a larger proportion, and perhaps 1-3 schools, depending on the year, with a large share of LEP students.”

This report provides a valuable complement to our findings in Separate and Unequal, both in its examination of two additional years of data and in its use of sophisticated statistical formulas to account for possible errors in the numbers of LEP students that charters report to the state each year. As this chart from the article shows, even when the researchers controlled for that possibility, the proportion of LEP students in most charters in the city fell well below the district average (represented by the solid line on the graph).

Proportion of LEP students in NYC charter schools, 2006-2008

One weakness of the study, unfortunately, is that the researchers chose to only do a district-wide comparison, rather than also comparing charters to schools in their immediate neighborhood, as our study did. In their discussion of why charters have fewer LEP students, they do cite our report in explaining that it is not because charters open in neighborhoods with few LEP students; as they note, we found that the gap between the proportion of English language learners in elementary and middle school charters and district schools in the South Bronx in 2007-08 (21.6% ELLs in district schools compared to 9% in charters) was even larger than the citywide average.

However, their decision not to replicate the neighborhood method for their own report limits the usefulness of their otherwise sensible decision to disaggregate students who receive free lunch from those who receive reduced price lunch. Errors in the data — including their choice to include high schools, which tend to have less reliable data on student poverty — may explain why they found roughly comparable proportions of free lunch students at the city-wide level (unlike our study, which found a 10% gap city-wide for elementary and middle schools). However, it’s unlikely that controlling for these errors would eliminate the large differences in student poverty that we found between charters and district elementary and middle schools in neighborhoods such as the South Bronx and North-Central Brooklyn in 2007-08:

Percentage of free lunch students at district and charter schools by neighborhood/area

Their report ends with several valuable policy recommendations, including suggestions that individual charters should better integrate English language learners into their classrooms and schools and foster closer engagement with language-diverse families. They also suggest that researchers and charter school authorizers should look more closely at ways to disaggregate levels of language knowledge among students (for example, by looking at students’ scores on New York’s ESL achievement test) when judging charters’ success or failure in raising ELL students’ achievement. Finally, they also call for “careful implementation and strict enforcement” of the state’s new charter law, which requires that charters “meet enrollment and retention targets for ELL students…mandate[s] transparent public reports on the success in meeting these targets, and make[s] repeated failure to meet targets grounds for charter revocation.” As the school year winds down and the next round of charter evaluations and approvals continues, we share their hope that the state and charter authorizers will follow through on these responsibilities.