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School Improvement Grants: How Many Charters are Eligible?

Charter schools are getting lots of media attention this week—from the appearance of Bill Gates at the National Charter Schools Conference in Chicago to the release of a new federal study that found charters have little edge over regular public schools. Then there was the bombshell that dropped late Tuesday night that some congressional Democrats want to shift $100 million in federal money meant for charters to the $10 billion bill aimed at staving off widespread layoffs in public schools.

So let me just add to this week's charter school overload.

Hearing Bill Gates call for the shuttering of bad charters—which is exactly what Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the national charter schools audience last year—made me think I should scour the states' applications for $3.5 billion in Title I School Improvement Grants to see how many "persistently lowest-achieving schools"—the campuses that are eligible for the money—are charters.

I naively thought I could look at the 32 state applications posted on the Education Department's website in half a day's time to compile my list. It was clear after combing through Arizona's list and confirming which schools were in fact charters that I would have to scale back my ambitions.

So I settled on a sample of five states to give a snapshot of how many charters are performing poorly enough to meet the federal government's rules that schools entitled to the money must be those that are "persistently lowest-achieving," or those that rank in the bottom 5 percent. There are wide variations, as you will see, but keep in mind that every state developed its own methodology—which Education Department honchos had to approve—for calculating which schools would be eligible.

Arizona: Out of 306 schools that the state calculated to be eligible for a slice of the grants, at least 59 are charters.

California: Education officials in the nation's largest state calculated that 188 schools were eligible; nine are charters. (thank you, dear California, for clearly labeling which schools were charters!)

Colorado: Of the 315 schools eligible, at least 33 are charters.

Missouri: There are 52 schools eligible, and at least eight of them are charters.

New York: Out of the 403 schools labeled as eligible, only one is a charter. (I'm double-checking this one since the number is so low, so if I hear something different from folks at the state department of education, I will update this post.)

There you have it. In a state like California, where there are more than 800 charter schools, only nine made the list by the state's calculations. That's a pretty incredible showing for the charter sector. Charter performance in Arizona doesn't look as good, but it's important to point out that the charter sector has roughly 500 schools. And New York's charter schools—which number about 145, with most of them in New York City—looks very strong if that number holds up.

We'll be curious now to see how many charters actually end up getting some of the money.

UPDATE: It is true that only one charter in New York is on the list of eligible schools, confirms Jane Briggs, a spokeswoman for the state department of education. She offers an illuminating explanation for why this may be the case. Below is an excerpt from an email she just sent to me.

"It is correct that at present John Lindsay is the only charter school on our list of Tier I, II, and III schools. There are many reasons why the number of identified charters is small:

1. Typically schools must be in operation for a minimum of three years before they would be identified. A lot of charter schools haven't been around long enough to be on our lists yet.

2. Most of our charters schools are elementary schools, which Statewide have been making AYP in recent years at a high rate.

3. Charter schools are often small, and small schools tend to have an easier time making AYP because they are typically accountable for fewer disaggregated groups than large schools.

4. The charter schools that are the weakest academic performers are not renewed and therefore would not be on the list of Tier I, II, or III schools.

5. We do have a lot of good charter schools that are performing well."

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