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Texas charters score lower than traditional schools in state, federal ratings

Texas public schools’ accountability ratings were released over the last two weeks — the federal ratings last week, statewide numbers on July 29 — and while are changes in store at both levels, one trend within the test data remained steady: charter schools were more likely than traditional public schools to be rated “unacceptable” by the state or miss federal Annual Yearly Progress.

The American Federation of Teachers’ Texas chapter highlighted the difference on its blog shortly after the state data was released. With the caveat that the group remains “appropriately skeptical” of what test data really signify, they went ahead and pointed out that 14.5 percent of the state’s charter campuses were rated “academically unacceptable,” compared to 6.2 percent of traditional public schools.

The disparity was even more dramatic between school districts (5.0 percent unacceptable) and charter chains operating more than one campus (18.6 percent).

Sure enough, those numbers were easy enough to spot in a summary by the Texas Education Agency, and the 2010 ratings showed a similar trend.

By the federal measure, according to a summary of those ratings, 29.9 percent of charter campuses missed AYP this year, compared to 26 percent of non-charter public schools.

“It does show the continual inability of all charters to rise to the level that the traditional public schools are reaching,” Texas AFT President Linda Bridges told the Texas Independent in an interview.

“These are supposed to be schools of innovation,” Bridges said. “These schools were really supposed to be the kind of the laboratory experiments of finding new answers, and my concern is I don’t think that mission has been met.”

That’s a common fight between unions and charter operators, and Seth Winick, a spokesman with the Texas Charter School Association, blames public school administrators for not running far enough with charter school models.

“There are some lessons to be learned from charter schools,” he said. “The question is how quickly is are they taking the things we are learning and inculcating it into the rest of education?”

As for the latest report and AFT’s blog, Winick said, “I don’t think it’s a fair comparison.” Both traditional and charter schools were hit by the absence of the rating-inflating Texas Projection Measure, which TEA scrapped this year, causing a huge spike in the number of failing schools.

Winick says the disparity between charters and traditional schools comes down to the populations they serve. He says Texas charters serve far higher percentages of black, Latino and economically disadvantaged students than traditional schools do. Earlier this year, his group touted a TEA report to the Texas Legislature that said students in those subgroups did better at charter schools than at traditional public schools.

Then, Winick says, there’s the different mission many charter schools have compared to public schools. Eight percent of the charter schools operating last year are residential treatment or juvenile detention centers, and 27 percent were dedicated to dropout recovery, according to a self-reported survey of Texas charters.

“I think if you start doing apples-to-apples comparisons, charter schools are doing just as well as their traditional counterparts,” Winick said, “and they’re doing it for less money.”

That’s an especially important talking point in a year that saw massive cuts to public education in Texas — but Bridges has a different read on what those cuts mean. With the state education agency in the midst of slashing one third of its staff, there’ll be fewer people tasked with parsing state data to find out what it really says about charter school quality.

“One of my concerns is that it’s going to be difficult to have those answers with the cutbacks at TEA, the loss of personnel,” Bridges said. “I think the oversight for charter schools will not be as rigorous as it should be, and the assistance won’t be there because of the cutbacks.”

Joe Smith, a former superintendent who tracks Texas school administration news at**TexasISD.com**, said he “didn’t think much” of the comparison between the schools’ ratings. “I’m not sure they went far enough in depth,” he said. Many charter schools are geared for challenging student populations. But many charter schools also hold students to tough attendance and behavior standards — fail them, and you’re bumped back into the traditional public system.

“I think it pretty much says that charter schools are just like public schools” Smith said — both were hurt by the removal of the projection measure this year, both are struggling with progress under the federal measure. “There’s just not a lot of difference out there. If there is a difference, it’s because you chose certain populations to go there.”

“They need to slow down and decide what it is we’re trying to accomplish in our public schools.”

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