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Demographics of N.Y.C.'s Charters Under Debate

Yesterday in this space, I flagged the release of a new report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes on New York City's public schools. Looking at six years of data on children in grades 3-8, it found that students, by and large, make bigger learning gains in charter schools than they otherwise would in their regular, neighborhood public schools. Check out my story on the study on edweek.org for more details.

This news is drawing interest because a national study on charter schools that CREDO released in June reached the opposite conclusion: In 80 percent of the schools in that study, charter students performed no better, and sometimes worse, than local public schools. The differing directions in the findings leads naturally to much discussion about what makes New York's charter schools different. In my article, for instance, CREDO's director Margaret E. Raymond points to a range of possibilities. They include the stronger assistance they get from charter support groups, a friendly political climate, a more careful process for authorizing new charters, and the fact that many of the school's charters have been at it for awhile.

But there's another factor in all this—one that I don't raise in yesterday's article—and that is demographics. Do the city's charter schools serve a more advantaged or higher-achieving population of students than traditional public schools? It turns out there is an ongoing side debate taking place on that very question.

During yesterday's conference call, the CREDO researchers, citing statistics from city school officials, noted that 72.1 percent of the charter school students come from families poor enough to qualify for the federal subsidized meals program, compared with 61.4 percent of the students in traditional public schools.

But, as the United Federation of Teachers points out in a report released Sunday, there's poor and then there's really poor. Students who qualify for free lunch are worse off than those who qualify for reduced-price lunches and the statistic cited yesterday combines both measures.

According to the teachers' union, the public schools are actually serving more of the former. Nearly 67 percent of the students in the public schools qualify for free lunches, compared with 57.6 of the students in the charters.

The CREDO researchers said they found no differences between the charter schools and the traditional public schools in the percentages of special education students enrolled. But the teachers union, again, begs to differ. Its report contends that 9.5 percent of charter school students and 16.4 percent of students in traditional schools qualify for special education. Marcus Winters also tackles the debate over the special education figures in an opinion piece published today in the online edition of the New York Daily News.

The charter schools also serve a lower percentage of English-language learners than the regular public schools and higher percentages of black and Hispanic students, according to the UFT report. But there seems to be less disagreement on those points.

Since the CREDO study is a head-to-head comparison between students with demographically similar profiles, none of this changes its results. But the statistics provide food for thought, nonetheless.

The UFT, for its part, is hoping that its report will provide statistical ammunition for including a provision in the state's charter school law that would force charter schools to create student bodies that mirror the demographics of the community school district in which they sit. You can read more about that recommendation in this Monday post from GothamSchools.

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