11/09/2010 06:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Finally, Some In-Depth Reporting on Why Students Leave Charters

Charter schools have been legal in Illinois for 15 years. Bigwigs from Oprah to Mayor Daley to Ed Secretary Arne Duncan to President Obama talk as though charters are the answer to public school problems. The Chicago Tribune crows incessantly about charters' waiting lists, "100 percent graduation rates," and "innovations."

PURE wasn't originally opposed to charters, though they have never met the standards we wanted to see added to state law back in 1994 -- requirements that charters have open neighborhood attendance boundaries, elected Local School Councils, and union staff.

But we've become more cynical about charters as the hype and outright lies about them have forced us to break out the hip waders. We've seen how "charter success" has become the main weapon politicians use to humiliate and threaten regular public schools.

And then there was the recent Waiting for 'Superman' charter hype-apalooza.

In response, PURE has been out there telling the truth about charters for several years now. Our information comes from research reports, but also from parents, who have told us how they and their children have been treated at some charters. Some families are simply discouraged from enrolling their children at all, while other students are "counseled out" when they don't meet the school's "standards."

Our report on charter accountability offered further proof that charters operate on a different playing field from regular schools, which must accept all students.

Others, like my fellow Parents Across America co-founders Caroline Grannan and Sharon Higgins, have done important work busting charter myths, but our voices have rarely been joined by any in the more mainstream media.

Disturbing charter data
Finally, Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ and education journal Catalyst have taken a closer look at some local charter schools, coming up with some disturbing data. For example:

  • One out of every 10 charter school students who were enrolled in 2009 either transferred to another school or otherwise failed to return in the fall of 2009.
  • An internal Chicago Public Schools memo provides evidence suggesting that students are more likely to leave charters... The memo also states that students who transferred were more likely to have lower test scores.
  • Charter schools expelled 146 students in 2009, or five of every 1,000 -- a higher rate of expulsion than traditional schools, which posted an expulsion rate of 1.5 for every 1,000 students.
  • In 85 percent of charter school cases, students were expelled for less serious offenses that are not eligible for expulsion under Chicago Public Schools rules.

According to Catalyst, "magnet schools are comparable to charter schools, with lotteries for coveted seats and no attendance boundaries... Yet a far higher percentage of students leave charter schools."

WBEZ and Catalyst also reported that some charters assess fees and fines for a variety of things, from tardiness to "credit recovery."

Parental choice?
Catalyst found support among charter parents for the stricter discipline and other rules. This is not surprising. Many parents think that charter schools are actually inexpensive private schools. Others are simply happy to have their children in a school where less motivated or more behaviorally-challenged students are pushed out. It's generally the parents of the more challenging students who aren't satisfied, and it's pretty easy to blame the problems on those parents and let the charter school off the hook.

Charter accountability far too weak
But offering a private school education in a public school setting is not the legal rationale for charters. In fact, charters are, by law, supposed to "increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for at risk pupils."

Catalyst says, "To date, there has been no comprehensive analysis by CPS of why students transfer from charter schools, despite anecdotal complaints from some parents and activists that charters push out students, especially struggling students. CEO Ron Huberman dismisses the accusations against charters as 'more myth than reality.' He says data show that students who are forced out of charter schools are exceptions, but his office did not produce data to back up that claim" (emphasis added).

At the very least, charters are clearly adding to the problem of student transiency, which research shows can lead to lower academic achievement. At worst, charters are deliberately manipulating their student enrollment to boost test scores and get rid of unwanted students.

PURE believes that state law and the district must require charters to report on the numbers of and reasons for student attrition and transfers. Our charter accountability report also called for charters to have the added oversight of elected local school councils. These changes should have happened a long time ago, before so many children's lives were disrupted.