Education Law Prof Blog: Are Alternative Charter Schools Earning Their Paychecks or Just Cashing Them?
A new investigative report by Heather Vogell suggests that alternative charter schools are enrolling as many students as possible, collecting checks for students who may not even be there, and providing less in return than other public schools. By alternative charter school, she refers to charter schools that enroll students who are at risk of dropping out of school. Vogell focuses most heavily on those alternative schools run by for-profit management companies.
Vogell's findings are troubling any way you cut them. In isolation, the results in these alternative charter schools are so objectively low that they look wrong on their face. In comparison to other public schools serving students at risk of dropping out, the charter school results still look problematic, lagging well behind traditional public schools.
The first problem appears to be inflated enrollment numbers. Speaking of an alternative charter high school in Ohio, Vogell writes:
Only three of the more than 170 students on Capital’s rolls attended class the required five hours that day, records obtained by ProPublica show. Almost two-thirds of the school’s students never showed up; others left early. Nearly a third of the roster failed to attend class all week. . . [But] the no-shows didn’t hurt the school’s revenue stream. Capital billed and received payment from the state for teaching the equivalent of 171 students full time in May.
If these charters have the corner on any market, it is enrolling no-shows. They are dominating in Ohio. "After pulling in students long enough to tap public money, many of the schools fail to keep them in class. In Ohio in 2016, for-profit companies ran nearly one-third of the state’s 94 charter schools for dropouts — but three-fourths of the 20 with the highest absenteeism rates."
Both the inputs and outputs are lower in these schools. On the inputs, they provide substantially less access to counselors--potentially the most important resource for students struggling with issues both in and outside of school. Only 58% of the alternative school students attend a school with a counselor. Class size are larger and their rate of inexperienced teachers is also more than twice the rate of other schools.
With poor attendance rates and lower inputs, achievement in these schools is predictably low. "About 40 percent of the schools failed to meet state standards in 2015-2016. While Capital High passed overall, meeting state testing and other goals, its students didn’t make satisfactory academic progress. At 92 percent of Ohio’s dropout recovery schools in 2015, the graduation rate was below 50 percent. Capital’s was 23 percent. In 18 schools, including Capital, students skipped at least once every two days."
Two plausible explanations come to me. First, states have essentially given up on these students and would rather enroll them in a charter than a traditional public school because the costs are lower. While I don't doubt some have given up on these kids, I am not sure the cost-saving theory fits with these particular charter schools. The state could just let them drop out of traditional public school and not be tasked with paying anyone for them. The second explanation is that with some legislators favorable toward privatizing education in general and another group of legislators asleep at the wheel, no one is really noticing. I am sure I am overlooking other explanations, but I find it had to believe that this is what states are paying these schools for.
For those looking for more detailed data on particular alternative charter schools, the story includes a comprehensive list and info-graphic here.
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