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Texas Students Enter Charters With Leg Up?

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Researchers and advocates often debate whether charter schools and regular public schools are competing on a level playing field—or if charters' practices allow them select higher-achievers, and reap more impressive test scores and glory as a result.

A new analysis out of Texas wades into that issue and concludes that students entering a select group of charter middle schools arrived with stronger academic skills than their peers at comparable, regular public schools. It also finds that those charter schools generally enroll a smaller portion of special-needs students and English-language learners than comparable schools.

Its author, Ed Fuller, an associate professor at Penn State University, does not focus on all charters statewide, but rather on what he describes as "high profile" charter networks that also have large enrollments, which include KIPP, Yes Prep, Harmony, and Brooks Academy. The study was commissioned by the Texas Business and Education Coalition.

The author bases his main findings on a comparison of the test scores of students entering charters with those from "sending" schools, who instead went to a regular public school.

But David Dunn, the executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, questioned that methodology, suggesting a more precise approach would have been to have been based on some sort of randomized trial, controlling for various student characteristics across schools. He also cautioned against making generalizations about charters statewide based on a study that examines only a fraction of them.

Fuller responded in an e-mail that his research methods were appropriate for the questions at the heart of his study—which focus on the characteristics of students entering charters, not the effect of charters on achievement.

And he says he was careful to acknowledge that his findings were based on an analysis of a select number of schools—though he also points out that they represent a substantial portion of the state's charter middle school population. "So, it's not like this is a tiny sliver of the charter schools," he said, "it's a big chunk."

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