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Posted at 2:58 PM ET, 05/23/2010

Charters vs. public schools: Behind the numbers

By Valerie Strauss

[See correction below]
Charter school advocates often like to say that many of these schools do a better job than nearby public schools with the same population of students.

That, in fact, is what writer Steven Brill says about two schools--one public charter and the other part of the New York City School system--in an article in today's New York Times magazine entitled “The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand.”

The article is long, and says a number of things with which I could argue but won’t here. What I will do, though, is point out the very real differences between two school populations that Brill says are the same.

This is important, because, as we all know, it isn’t fair to compare apples and oranges and pretend the comparison is between two pieces of the same fruit.

In his story, Brill writes about a building on 118th Street in Harlem that houses a charter school, the Harlem Success Academy on one side, and a regular public school, P.S. 149, on the other. He says the charter school spends less per person, but achieves better results:

“P.S. 149 is rated by the city as doing comparatively well in terms of student achievement and has improved since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over the city’s schools in 2002 and appointed Joel Klein as chancellor. Nonetheless, its students are performing significantly behind the charter kids on the other side of the wall. To take one representative example, 51 percent of the third-grade students in the public school last year were reading at grade level, 49 percent were reading below grade level and none were reading above. In the charter, 72 percent were at grade level, 5 percent were reading below level and 23 percent were reading above level. In math, the charter third graders tied for top performing school in the state, surpassing such high-end public school districts as Scarsdale.

“Same building. Same community. Sometimes even the same parents. And the classrooms have almost exactly the same number of students. In fact, the charter school averages a student or two more per class. This calculus challenges the teachers unions’ and Perkins’s “resources” argument — that hiring more teachers so that classrooms will be smaller makes the most difference.”

But Brill has it wrong. The student bodies aren’t the same. Here’s a breakdown, according to the NYC Public School Parents blog.

At P.S. 149, 20 percent of the kids are special education students; and 40% of these are the most severely disabled, in self-contained classes. Eighty-one percent are poor enough to receive free lunch, and 13% are English Language Learners. In 2008 (the latest available data) more than 10% were homeless.

[Correction: Eight-one percent is actually the "poverty rate" at P.S. 149 according to one May 2010 New York City government report on the school. It does not refer to free lunches. The city's School Report Card on P.S. 149, says that 68 percent of P.S. 149 students are eligible for free lunches and 2 percent for reduced-price lunch. The city's School Report Card on the Success Academy shows that 49 percent are eligible for free lunches and 21 percent for reduced-price lunch.]

At the Harlem Success Academy, 2% of the students are English Language Learners (compared to 13% at P.S. 149 --more than six times as many). The school says it has16.9% special education students, (compared to 20% at P.S. 149) and of these, few if any are the most severely disabled. The charter school had three homeless students in the 2008-09 school year, less than 1 percent of its population (compared to P.S.149’s 10 percent).

It is worth noting that education historian Diane Ravitch reported in her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System that only about 100 of the 40,000 homeless schoolchildren in New York City public schools are enrolled in charter schools.

Charter school advocates don’t have to make bogus comparisons to boost their argument in favor of an expansion of these institutions.

The truth may not be as compelling, but it has the virtue of being, well, true. Some charter schools are excellent and work wonders with kids. Some do an average job, and some are awful. There is no evidence that charter schools are the silver bullet that will “save” public education.

Traditional public schools have to educate every student who is eligible to enroll. They can't counsel students out, as many charters do, or select who they want. This is not an excuse for bad schools. But it is part of the reason that the job of the traditional public school system, which still educates about 95 percent of all schoolkids, is far more complicated than many reformers today would have you believe.

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By Valerie Strauss  | May 23, 2010; 2:58 PM ET
Categories:  Charter schools  | Tags:  brill and story about unions, brill's story and charter schools, charter schools, steven brill story, the new york times and brill story, the teachers unions last stand  
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Valerie- They are most likely different in one other factor, their parent’s ambitions. For better or worse one of the most infuriating parts of public schools are the wide swaths of indifferent parents. It is that indifference that pushes parents to find places where at least other parents care enough to look around for a school. While I do support the Obama’s and yes Rhee’s push for a stronger teaching corps, I also think one of the missing keys to education reform is our parents. Too little is discussed about the parent’s role both within charters and in the public schools.

Posted by: Brooklander | May 23, 2010 5:01 PM | Report abuse

It's important to note that the scores for students with disabilities are used when determining schoolwide scores. So it makes quite a difference if one school has 15% stud. w/dis. and another has 2%.

Another factor is the average Parent Education Level. Here in California the PEL is documented as a feature in the school's demographics. Our KIPP school in Oakland has a very high PEL in comparison to the traditional public schools in the same neighborhood, 3.18 vs. 2.00 and 2.21. This is the difference between parents having been college-going or not. This is one of the soft differences in families who do/don't that needs to be carefully assessed.

In the meantime, with charter caps being lifted, get ready to spend more and more money on monitoring, auditing, investigations, prosecutions, etc. of all the crooked and flaky charter schools which will continually crop up. learn about that mess @

Posted by: pondoora | May 23, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

It's so refreshing to read intelligent, researched commentary instead of propoganda. As an Autistic Support teacher in Philadelphia, I know that most of our charters do very little to educate children with severe disabilties. It's a question of resources. Yet the population of children with severe needs is quite high in Philadelphia. Right now, several schools are being turned over to charters, KIPP and Mastery to name 2. I hope the media and community tracks who stays in the schools and who leaves in the upcoming year. I have a feeling there will be an exodus of children after Nov. 30th (ChildCount).

Posted by: Nikki1231 | May 23, 2010 7:52 PM | Report abuse


Thank you for honestly speaking about the differences between charters and public schools.

Now how can we get a full investigative article that applies this to DC charter schools and DCPS?

Posted by: letsbereal2 | May 23, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

A new report from the Century Foundation reinforces Strauss' point on charters. It can be found at:
In fact, charters on average, do worse than neighborhood public schools, but charter advocates continually cook the numbers. The too good to be true Hoxby study of charters in New York City has now been found to have had serious methodological errors.
Brill's piece in the Times also distorted what "tenure" means for public school teachers, implying that it functioned as it does for college professors. And in declaring mayoral control a success, it failed to disclose that the flat NAEP scores in NYC and Chicago since 2003 actually means that reform has been a failure under mayoral control in both cities.
Unfortunately Brill's NYT piece about teacher unions was full of faulty facts. His purpose was to set unions up as villianous scapegoats, in order to weave a compelling narrative and myth-making on behalf of self styled education reformer-entrepreneurs. You have to know a lot about education research to understand the errors that underlie Brill's analysis.
Thank you Valarie for helping to correct the impression the piece left for the broad uninformed public.

Posted by: marksimon1 | May 23, 2010 8:20 PM | Report abuse

But Jay says that charter schools have the same exact population as regular, kick out fewer students, and Michelle walks on water.

Posted by: mamoore1 | May 23, 2010 10:04 PM | Report abuse

One thing to remember about charters, especially those loved by the professional education "reform" crowd, is that their populations do not match their public school neighbor.

Just imagine them going down to Mississippi Ave and Stanton Road in Southeast and taking over the public school there.
That's not what they do, yet that claim is implied.

Posted by: edlharris | May 23, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

I can't help feeling that Charter Schools have this attitude of "We can do better" until they try it. Then they get the same results as everybody else.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 24, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Your anti-charter school mantra continues. Parents know the difference between the charter schools and the traditional public schools, and clearly more parents want that choice. Just look at another part of the article in which 43,000 students were turned away because the charter schools are capped. Charter school seats are done by lottery, so your claim of selection is just down right wrong. Everyone has a chance, albeit it small given the demand. Charter schools may not be THE ONLY solution to education reform, but they are certainly ONE solution. So instead of knocking the strides of charter schools, declare a truce and admit that they are helping many students who otherwise would be left in failing schools. Instead, set your aim on the teachers' unions (the purpose of the article), which are resisting education reform and any kind of accountability.

Posted by: sunshine71 | May 24, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

edlharris - you must not get over to the southeast area much. If you did, you would realize that there are charter schools in that area. In fact, two very good charter schools (Friendship Southeast Elementary Academy and Imagine Southeast Public Charter School) are within 2 miles of the intersection you mentioned.

Posted by: sunshine71 | May 24, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

I have nothing against Charter schools, unless they do not have to have the same accountability as public schools. If they get public money, they need to have the same rules in place. The Charter schools that are doing well are great. But there are some who are ripping people off and are trying to get taxpayer money while not doing a good job. If you are calling public schools "failing" because of test scores, then you can't claim that Charters are not failing as well when they don't have the test scores that would prove it.

I agree there should be a truce, charters and public schools should be working together to help educate kids. Cooperation is the key to education reform, not competition. Kids are not products. ALL of them deserve a good education.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 24, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

I would argue that Ms. Strauss' article is far more of a propaganda piece than "intelligent, researched commentary" as one commenter put it.

Ms. Strauss muddles the numbers to slant her article in the direction she chooses. She tells us that PS 149 has 20% special education students and that "40% of these are the most severely disabled." Solid, precise numbers. But when she gives numbers for the charter in question, undermines the charter with a dismissive "the [charter] school says it has16.9% special education students." Hardly unbiased reporting. She takes it further by claiming that of those children at the charter, "few if any are the most severely disabled." Few if any? Where's the precise, researched percentage as cited for the public school?

If Ms. Strauss is going to write an article that seeks to get "behind the numbers," the least she could do is take the time to get and report all the numbers. Maybe a better title for this piece would be "Charters vs. Public Schools: Manipulating the Numbers to Help Support What I Already Believe."

Posted by: jmartincox | May 24, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

"Charters vs. Public Schools: Manipulating the Numbers to Help Support What I Already Believe."

This would have been a pefect title for the NY Times piece.

Nice Try, Jmartincox.

It's what they call attacking your opponent on their strengths.

Karl Rove was a master at it. It's pretty disheartening to see the school "reformers" using the same tactic.

It's all for the children, right?

Posted by: efavorite | May 24, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Imagine Schools, Inc., is the nation’s largest for-profit charter school management company, with 71 schools nationwide and 11 in Ohio.

This report found that Imagine has a poor record of performance in Ohio and a business model that includes elaborate school real estate transactions, high management and operations fees, overlapping business relationships, low spending on classroom instruction, and tight control of school finances and board relationships.

Posted by: SpaaceMonkee | May 24, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

I 'm glad to hear the President Obama is open to closing low performing charters nationally as there is a higher percentages of poor to mediocre Charter when compared to the percentage of public schools with similiar results.
I'd also like to see charters that far surpass other public schools- like Washington Latin expanded to actually serve more low income children and special needs students. Many charters do no have their fair share of students who experience challenges and those that are successful should be given more student who can benefit from the academic success. Unfortunately things flow the other way, My son left a supposed math science enrichment charter as did a number of his friends. Come to find out this year that one friend who left is now reading on a 2nd grade level in the 6th grade after being at the charter they both attended for over 4yrs (1st-4th) grades. No that this doesn't happen in public school but shouldn't be tolerated either way.
Also there are way too many shenanigans at play with charter operators bilking and miking the public system .See here for more details

Posted by: janetcamillebrown | May 24, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

And re New Orleans (57% of public school students in charters) which is now frequently held up as an example of a new-and-improved district model.

Here's an excerpt from a summary about the EPIC review of a recent pro-charter study

"A recent report from the Reason Foundation argues for significant changes in how public education is organized and delivered in large cities. The report argues that city schools should move toward a "portfolio" of schools model. In such a model, the district does not necessarily operate schools, but instead focuses on closing low-performing schools and opening new ones under the management of autonomous people or corporations [naturally, that would be charters]. The report cites improvements in student achievement in New Orleans that have accompanied a substantial shift in the city towards charter and autonomous schools...The findings from New Orleans are supplemented by examples from other cities, but these examples and other arguments throughout the report rest not on systematic research but instead on carefully selected examples intended to support a particular perspective."

Here's what the author found:

1. Performance has gone up, but similar improvements are found in the years prior to Hurricane Katrina. From 2002 to 2005, school performance scores went up about 10 points and this was before Katrina. Also, during both the pre-Katrina and post-Katrina periods, scores went up in the state as a whole. The improvement had nothing to do w/Vallas.
2. The devastation from Katrina led to massive out-migration. The shift in population as resulted in a city that has a smaller proportion of families living in extreme poverty: 12.3% in 2005, 6.4 in 2007.
3. The resources available to public schools have been significantly greater post-Katrina. Pre-Katrina spending was only slightly higher than average statewide spending. Spending in 2007-08 was more than 50% higher than the state average, due to federal "restart" money. In addition to the government money, millions in foundation money has poured into the district.

And talking about propaganda from the pro-charter crowd...I presume smart people work at the Reason Foundation, so why didn't they bother to include such incredibly important information?

Posted by: pondoora | May 24, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

jmartincox: I think Strauss' summation, "Some charter schools are excellent and work wonders with kids. Some do an average job, and some are awful," is, in addition to being undeniably true, pretty darn balanced.

sunshine71: I think one thing easily overlooked is what a tiny percentage of the nation's students attend charter schools. It can make some statistics about charter schools appear more "positive" than they might otherwise.

I'll make another mention of the new Century Foundation report mentioned above:

Kenni Smith @ThinkingSmith
Developmental Studies Center

Posted by: ThinkingSmith | May 24, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse




Yes, but the exact same things (some are good, some are OK, some are bad) could be said for public schools. Heck, the same non-statement could be made of just about any entity. However balanced Ms. Strauss' conclusion might appear to be, her omissions belie her belief in such statements.

Ultimately, the whole charter vs. public argument is a fight about money: who has it, who gets it, who keeps it. This is most evident in the fact that no one addresses the point brought up by Brooklander. No one seems to discuss the problem of parent involvement. To get their child into a charter school, even one that does not "select" students, parents must actively seek admittance to the school. There has to be a correlation between parent involvement and student achievement. But there is no money in getting parents take responsibility for their children, so it is ignored.

This is one of the key differences between education in "rich" and "poor" areas. Wealthier parents tend to more concerned with their children's education; poor parents, less so.

As is true with so much, everything starts in the home. If we really want to educate our country's children, we need to first educate their parents. Until all parents view education as viable, valuable, and vital, there will be these sorts of educational battles.

And the gap between the haves and have nots will grow...

Posted by: jmartincox | May 24, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

while there are two elementary charter schools down near Mississippi and Stanton, based on what most other charter schools have done,eg KIPP, they have not replaced the local public school, Turner. These 2 charter schools do not operate like Turner in having to take all who walk thru their doors. And unlike Turner, they can ask students to withdraw from the school.
that's the difference between Public and charter.

Posted by: edlharris | May 24, 2010 8:33 PM | Report abuse

To get their child into a charter school, even one that does not "select" students, parents must actively seek admittance to the school.

Bingo, the light just came on. Imagine a piece of scientific research where participants could decide if they wanted to be in the control group or experimental group. Rather invalid results by any standards.

Posted by: mamoore1 | May 24, 2010 10:39 PM | Report abuse

@JmartinCox- Are you going to dispute that the charter actually has ANY low-incidence students? If you really want to, you can look up the information on the state website. There's no need to insinuate that the autor is trying to slant facts. My bet is that the author is correct. It certainly would be very out of character for charters to take severe needs students.

In PA, PennData tracks all information on special ed students at ALL public schools. That's why I know that some of the charters taking over some of our failing Philly schools this year have exactly zero experience serving children with more severe needs. At this point, the big two that I've read about are KIPP and Mastery. Both have good track records in rasing student acheivement. Meeting needs of more severe special ed students? Not really. In fact, during the selection process, both charters admitted as much to the advisory councils. No hiding or beating around the bush. Some background info can be found at

It's not a slur to speak the truth. Charters have not and do not share in any equitable way the burden of educating the most challengiing students.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | May 25, 2010 5:51 AM | Report abuse

jmartincox: I don't think anyone here would dispute the importance of parent involvement in education. However, there isn't a level playing field when it comes to parent involvement. Even the most motivated parent in a "poor" district may not be able be as involved as a counterpart in a "rich" district, if she or he is, say, a single parent working two jobs to make ends meet.

How do you propose implementing this educating-of-parents of which you speak? Parents (and many children, notwithstanding their parents' level of involvement) are educated by a culture that values money, stuff, celebrity, instant gratification, quick fixes... I could go on and on. And how do they receive that education? Largely through advertising. And who is responsible for advertising? Profit-driven corporations. Greed corrupts, which is exactly why public education shouldn't be in the hands of for-profit organizations.

Diane Ravitch has a great section in her book about the history of charter schools and how they were originally envisioned. That vision was and is totally inspiring. I think it's tragic that it has morphed from that into something almost unrecognizable.

Posted by: ThinkingSmith | May 25, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

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