On November 28, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the Success Academy charter chain in Néw York City. Moskowitz claimed that the neighborhoods with the most charter schools saw the greatest gains for their public schools. She called the expansion of charter schools a “windfall” for public schools.
This seems counter-intuitive since charters often have fewer (or no) students with disabilities and few English language learners or disruptive students. This means that the local public schools have more of the students who require extra resources. Thus, the “windfall” is hard to discern.
Fortuitously, young scholar Horace Meister decided to check the data.after working at the Department of Education headquarters for more than a decade, he knows how to analyze the numbers.
This is his analysis:
The Wall Street Journal recently decided to publish an essay signed by Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City. In the essay Ms. Moskowitz defends the role of charter schools in public education. Obviously the editors at the Wall Street Journal did not bother to fact-check her writing, so we will do their work for them.
Ms. Moskowitz attempts to defend charter schools from two accusations 1) that they cherry pick students and that 2) this cherry-picking has negative consequences for local public schools and the students who attend them.
Although she raises the cherry-picking issue she never fully addresses it. We will not let her get away with that. Ms. Moskowitz brags about how many students at Success Academy are eligible for free lunch. She forgets to compare this to the averages at the local public schools. We will do her work for her and for the editors who should have insisted that she do this.
The 2014 Progress Report data, used to compare the performance of all New York City public and charter schools, was released last month. These data show that Success Academy in Harlem serves 9.5% fewer students receiving free lunch, 18.5% fewer students on public assistance, 64% fewer students who live in temporary housing, 46.8% fewer English Language Learners, 44.6% fewer special education students, and 93.2% fewer of the highest need special education students than the average for public elementary and middle schools in District 5 in Harlem.
Whether on purpose or by accident, it is clear that charter schools are cherry-picking students. This may be because they spend most of their marketing budgets, which are vast and had been subsidized by the public schools for many years, on outreach to only specific students. This may be because they refuse to enroll students, even those who win the lottery, if they do not attend pre-enrollment summer school or meet other criteria. It may be because students who misbehave are suspended or expelled at sky-high rates. It may be because the parents of students with challenges do not bother to apply. Whatever the causal explanation, charter schools serve a select student population.
Ms. Moskowitz argues that the data show that public schools in districts with more charter schools had improved test performance over the years as compared to districts with fewer charter schools. Her evidence is of such poor quality that, were it not for her obvious ideological agenda, it is hard to explain how a former professor with a PhD could make such elementary errors. Some errors are of methodology others seem to be outright falsehoods.
One falsehood is Ms. Moskowitz’s claim that District 5 in Harlem now ranks higher in proficiency on New York State English and Math exams than District 29 in Queens. She says this can only be explained by the fact that Harlem has more charter schools. But her whole premise is bogus. Again, looking at the Progress Report spreadsheet, elementary and middle schools in District 29 in Queens have an average proficiency rate in English that is 68% higher than District 5 in Harlem. In Math the schools in District 29 in Queens have a proficiency rate that is 75% higher than District 5 in Harlem. Not surprising given the lower poverty rates in Queens, but also contrary to Ms. Moskowitz’s claims.
Is there a correlation between the proportion of charter schools in a district and improved public school performance? Ms. Moskowitz does not answer this question, although she pretends to. Instead she makes unsubstantiated claims. Charter schools often go into neighborhoods and districts that are gentrifying.
Success Academy, with its expansion into Williamsburg, Park Slope, and Lower Manhattan, despite community opposition, is particularly notorious for employing this tactic. Harlem, the neighborhood that Ms. Moskowitz spends the most space discussing, is a prime example of a gentrifying neighborhood. It is equally likely that changing demographics can account for improving test scores, not the spread of charter schools. Ms. Moskowitz does not bother to control for this and obviously the editors of the Wall Street Journal did not care to ask her to. Why bother if she is saying what they want to believe?