Opinion: The Republic’s charter series is a magic show

A version of this column originally appeared on the Goldwater Institute blog.

If you’ve been reading The Arizona Republic’s multi-part charter school series recently, you’ve witnessed a fantastic magic trick: Like a magician cutting his assistant in two, The Republic has slashed charter schools’ performance data literally in half. Unfortunately, while a magician’s audience knows it’s being deceived, The Republic’s does not.

By comparing the state letter grades of charter schools with nearby district schools, The Republic found that about 60 percent of K-8 charter schools, and slightly over half of high schools, outperformed their district peers. However, The Republic decided to package these findings with a comparison of a third type of school: charter and district schools that serve both K-8 and high school students, called “hybrid” schools.

Amazingly, when including this third group, charters’ academic performance suddenly cratered: Less than 25 percent of hybrid charters outperformed their district peers.

With the charter average weighed down by these failed hybrid schools, The Republic conceded only that charters beat district schools “about half the time” and unveiled this marquee graphic featuring hybrid charters’ anemic performance:

Yet The Republic’s writers seemingly never bothered to wonder why charter schools, which they found to be outperforming districts in grades K-8 and 9-12, suddenly implode when they have students from both, while district schools do just fine under this arrangement.  (Or perhaps worse, the writers did look into this and still plowed forward with their reporting anyway).

So how was the magic done?

Well, of the 403 charter schools with 2018 letter grade data from the State Board of Education, 70 are classified as “hybrids.” Glancing at the data, you can see that hybrid charters actually earned more points on the A-F letter grade rubric for both their K-8 and high school students than standalone K-8 and high school charters did, and that hybrids include 2 of Arizona’s strongest charter school networks: BASIS and Great Hearts.

So if the problem isn’t with hybrid charters’ performance, how do their neighborhood district peers so thoroughly demolish them?

It turns out that only a handful of district schools are classified as hybrids across the entire state (out of more than a thousand), including only four in all of Maricopa County, and only one in Pima County. The most centrally located of those schools in Maricopa and the single hybrid district school in Pima both happen to be extremely highly rated schools.  

So, the grand reveal: Since The Republic thought it fitting to segregate hybrid schools from all others, the paper essentially pitted the performance of over 60 charter schools in Maricopa and Pima Counties not against their actual nearest district peers (whose performance they generally exceed) as The Republic claimed, but against 2 A-rated “hybrid” district schools that lay potentially dozens of miles further away.  

Imagine the outrage if charter advocates tried a similar stunt—for example, putting together a graph showing charter schools beating district schools’ performance over 90 percent of the time…and burying somewhere deep in the footnotes the fact that every district school was being compared not to their neighborhood charter, but to BASIS Scottsdale, which U.S. News & World Report rated as the best public high school in the country.

Like its attempts to downplay the fact charters receive less money overall than district schools, The Republic has muddied the waters and misinformed its readers about the contributions of Arizona’s charter schools.

As I and others have written elsewhere, Arizona’s charters have been shown to outperform district schools while costing taxpayers less money. This is something to celebrate, not to subject to theatrics and deception.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.

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