The Tweed insider who sends occasional reports to this blog is still anonymous. Still too dangerous to step out in the open. Wouldn’t it be swell if the Department of Education actually had a research department, instead of a hyper-active public relations department?

Insider here reviews the report on charter schools by the NYC Independent Budget Office. The report covered only the early grades, not the middle grades or high school years.

He/she writes:

Charter schools often seem to be at the center of the national debate on education. So much so in fact that when Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to review charter school policy in New York City, Eric Cantor, the Republican House Majority Leader in the United States Congress, went on the attack. Cantor claimed that de Blasio would “devastate the growth of education opportunity” and threatened to hold committee hearings about the city’s policies. To say the least it is unusual for a House Majority Leader from the United States Federal Government to threaten a city mayor who has been in office for less than 10 days. What could explain Cantor’s conniptions?

Data in a report released by the New York City Independent Budget Office the day after Cantor made his threats might answer our question. The report revealed that charter schools in New York City manage to get rid of students with lower test scores, special education students, and students who are often absent.

Here are some of the relevant quotes from the report:

“The results are revealing. Among students in charter schools, those who remained in their kindergarten schools through third grade had higher average scale scores in both reading (English Language Arts) and mathematics in third grade compared with those who had left for another New York City public school.”

“Only 20 percent of students classified as requiring special education who started kindergarten in charter schools remained in the same school after three years, with the vast majority transferring to another New York City public school (see Table 5). The corresponding persistence rate for students in nearby traditional public schools is 50 percent.”

“Absenteeism is an even greater predictor of turnover for students in charter schools, compared with its predictive power for students in nearby traditional public schools.”

It appears that Cantor and other self-proclaimed education reformers fear that transparency about the charter sector will reveal that it is an empire of cards. Rather than truly providing students with a better education it is evident that, as a sector, charter schools are just playing parlor tricks, getting rid of students who are bringing down their scores (and sending those students to the local public schools of course). No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have managed to turn education into a set of accounting gimmicks.

Another facet of the education debate revealed by the publication of this data is the extent to which spin rather than the facts is allowed to dominate in the media. The report is now being spun by the New York Times as “addressing a common criticism of New York City charter schools, a study… said that in general their students were not, in fact, more likely to transfer out than their counterparts in traditional public schools.”

In fact, the study provides evidence that charters schools in New York City are deliberately selecting which students they keep. They keep, at a higher rate than local public schools, only those students who bring up their test scores. And they kick out students who bring down their test scores. This gets to the core mission of public education. Are schools meant to serve all students or only students who produce good metrics for the schools they attend? The charter school sector and its advocates seem to believe their only moral obligation is to serve students who do school well. Students who don’t do school well are selectively encouraged and badgered to leave or are told they are not a “good fit.” Public schools, on the other hand, still believe that education should be open to all kids and that society has an obligation to provide for every single child.

In a fascinating twist this report follows a paper released in September by two conservative think tanks claiming that the charter sector in New York City does not discriminate against students with special needs. They alleged that charter schools have fewer special education students because fewer “choose” to apply and because charter schools are less likely to classify students as needing special education services “preferring instead to use their autonomy to intervene.” This paper was trumpeted by the media and treated as though it was a genuinely objective analysis, despite the fact that its methodology had been thoroughly debunked by the National Education Policy Center. With the data in the Independent Budget Office report we now have evidence that the charter sector’s preferred intervention is to selectively attrite students who would benefit from additional supports instead of actually trying to succor them. As long as the media accepts the “findings” of clearly biased think tanks funded by conservative groups as relevant to education policy we will not be able to have an honest national conversation about what works for children.

Where do we go next? The push for greater transparency within the charter sector must continue. Charters must be subject to the same reporting requirements as public schools. Complete data must be made public so that researchers can analyze what is truly going on. At the same time the role of charters in education policy must be minimized. Charters continue to take up bandwidth that should be devoted to discussions about how to make all schools for all kids better and better. It is by now abundantly clear that the charter sector as a whole has little to contribute to this conversation.