The Austin Chronicle

Study: Dropout Rates for Blacks Higher in Charters

By Richard Whittaker, April 27, 2012, News

Think charter schools help minority students? Think again. A new University of Texas study shows that the state's African-American high school students are three times more likely to drop out from a charter system than from a regular public school. Unsurprisingly, charter groups are not happy about this research.

Julian Vasquez Heilig, assistant professor in the UT College of Education's Department of Educational Administration, sought to answer two very simple questions: Are these schools serving African-American kids, and are they effective at it? While many studies have looked at academic achievement, Heilig wanted to examine a different conundrum: Do these students stay? Do they feel welcome, relative to public schools? The resulting paper, titled "Is Choice a Panacea?: An Analysis of Black Secondary School Attrition from KIPP, Other Privately Operated Charters, and Urban Districts," was presented April 15 at the American Educational Research Association's annual conference in Vancouver. Its findings about African-American high school students are alarming. Compared to large urban districts in Texas, said Heilig, "on average, charter schools have triple the dropout rates."

The study compares Texas charter districts with the state's large urban school districts – Austin, Houston, and Dallas – from 1998 to 2008. On average, a regular public school in Texas records a worrying 4% dropout rate for black high school students, but that soars to 13% for charter districts. There are similar patterns for leavers (students who transfer to another state, start homeschooling, or are expelled): 5% for large urban districts becomes 15% for charters. Those numbers are much worse for charter districts with fewer than 100 black students: 22% dropped out and 18% left. In some charter districts, 90% of all African-Amer­ican students have dropped out.

The Texas Charter Schools Association has fired back at Heilig's research. Noting that the association's members enroll a larger-than-average proportion of African-American students (23.7% compared to 12.6% for public schools), association Executive Director David Dunn said in a statement that "public charter schools are a vital option for students, and we think parents ought to continue to have these choices. Parents think so too because they are lined up on waiting lists to get in."

However, the Heilig report does not deal with academic results – just with retention rates, and the only reason he started looking was because he was approached by a local charter school network (he declined to say which one). He said, "They were having a hard time retaining African-Americans at their school, and they were very interested in us going out there and having a look at it." However, the charter then backtracked and told Heilig, "You can do that study, but you can't publish it." Considering how bad the numbers are, that may not be surprising. However, Heilig said, due to problems with Texas' dropout data, "We believe, if anything, that these numbers are conservative for the districts and the charter schools, and that the dropout rates and the leaver rates are probably much higher."

Heilig has no problem with good charters, and actually taught at the Aspire East Palo Alto Charter School in California. However, he said, "When you say the word 'charter,' it conjures up these amazing and innovative schools," and there is immense political pressure from both left and right to gloss over the failures. The PR juggernaut – which reached its zenith in the highly controversial movie Waiting for 'Superman' (see "Are Unions Educational Kryptonite?," Oct. 15, 2010) – has tried to sell charters as a cure-all for minority students. In an age when statistical analysis supposedly governs education policy, Heilig said, "We need to hold charter schools that are doing an even worse job than public schools accountable." As for the attacks on his research, his response is simple: "The data is the data."

The Houston-based Knowledge Is Power Program charter network has been particularly vitriolic in its response to Heilig's report, accusing it of using "faulty methodology to draw false and inflammatory conclusions." In a press statement, KIPP argues that the report "consists largely of repackaged findings" from another study, "What Makes KIPP Work?: A Study of Student Characteristics, Attrition, and School Finance," which was published by researchers at Western Michigan University and which KIPP says has been discredited by the Brookings Institute. Yet the situation is not quite that simple. The WMU report was attacked in The New York Times by Grover Whitehurst, director of the Brookings Insti­tute's Brown Center on Education Policy, but he's scarcely an impartial observer. A former undersecretary of education to Pres­ident George W. Bush, Whitehurst is a KIPP booster, arguing that its academics-only approach works better than schools that take a more holistic interest in student growth. Indeed, Gary Miron, co-author of the WMU report, had previously critiqued some pro-charter research by Whitehurst for its "weaknesses ... and flaws."

The attacks on Miron and Heilig are alarmingly similar to how KIPP, IDEA Public Schools, and Austin ISD hounded leading Penn State education researcher Ed Fuller when he criticized IDEA's claims about graduation rates (See "Uncontrolled Exper­i­ments," Dec. 9, 2011.) For Heilig, this is typical of charters: They are slow to release data, but quick to lambast any research that they see as critical. What makes this all the more ridiculous is that the only reason Heilig started the study was because a charter school approached him. "Privately, they have acknowledged that they have a problem," he said, "but publicly, they're not."

Dropout and Leaver Rates for Black Students in Texas Schools, 1998-2008

Dropouts Leavers
All schools 4% 7%
Comparable urban districts 3% 5%
All charters 13% 15%
Majority black 11% 12%
Not majority black 13% 15%
>100 black students 11% 13%
<100 black students 22% 18%

Source: "Is Choice a Panacea?: An Analysis of Black Secondary School Attrition from KIPP, Other Privately Operated Charters, and Urban Districts," UT-Austin

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