Column: Charter critics are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts

Daniel Patrick Moynihan once sagely noted that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts. The 2018 election has come and gone, now would be a great time to reacquaint ourselves with some facts about Arizona K-12 education. I’ve included source links for those inclined to trust but verify.

Fact one: Arizona student academic achievement has been improving. Arizona is one of only two of the fifty states to have seen statistically significant gains on all six Nation’s Report Card exams (fourth- and eighth- grade math, reading and science) for the entire period we can track all six exams. In other words, academic achievement has clearly moved in the right direction and the improvement is visible in the scores of both district and charter schools.

Fact two: Arizona charter school students show truly remarkable academic achievement and overall gains. Despite educating a majority minority student body, Arizona charter students displayed academic achievement similar to the highest performing states such as Massachusetts and Vermont in both the most recent Nation’s Report Card releases (2015 and 2017). Since 2009 NAEP gains by subject for students across the nation, and those in Arizona school districts and charter schools look like:

Fact three: Unlike Massachusetts, Vermont and some of the other top performing states, Arizona charter schools educate a majority-minority student body. Arizona law requires charters to conduct a random admissions lottery when applications exceed seats, and the differences in student bodies are nowhere near as divergent as often assumed. Among students taking the AzMERIT English Language Arts exam in 2018, minority students constituted 62 percent of Arizona district students, and 54 percent of Arizona charter students.

The same source reveals 11.1 percent of district students were classified as having a disability, 9.7 percent of charter students. English Language Learners constituted 6.3 percent of district students, 4.4 percent of charter students. Arizona charters have higher scores across student subgroups in both AzMERIT and the Nation’s Report Card. Some of the difference in scores can be attributed to differences in the makeup of the student bodies, but nothing close to all of it.

Fact four: An analysis of 85,000 Arizona students who transferred between district and charter schools invalidates claims of widespread “cream skimming” by either charter or district schools. Statewide students who transferred from district to charter schools brought lower than average AzMERIT scores with them from their previous school. Conversely, students who transferred between charter and district schools brought higher than average AzMERIT scores with them from their charter school.

Fact five: This same analysis shows that students transferring from Arizona districts — whether going to other district or charter schools — consistently brought lower than average AZMerit scores with them from their previous school, regardless of whether they transferred to another district or a charter school. Overall the findings do not support broad charter school creaming but do demonstrate widespread district divestiture of low-performing students, and no systematic creaming in admissions by either districts or charters.

Fact six: The Joint Legislative Budget Committee shows that the average total public funding per pupil received by district schools is $9,474, but $8,523 for Arizona charters.

Fact seven: According to the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Financial Report in the 2017-18 school year Arizona charters educated 17 percent of Arizona’s students attending public schools but receive only 15 percent of Arizona’s public education funds.

Fact eight: Students exercising open enrollment between district schools outnumber charter school students approximately two to one in an analysis of Maricopa County districts and charters. Arizona schools are funded on a per student basis, so kids transferring between district schools has the same impact on the budget of an individual campus as transferring to a charter, attending a private school, or moving out of state. If you (oddly) view students attending schools other than their zoned district school as “draining money” from that school, you should be most angry at school districts.

Matthew Ladner

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