Expert Commentary

Is choice a panacea? Black secondary student attrition from private charters and urban districts

2011 study from the University of Texas and Rice University in the Berkeley Review of Education on African-Americans' charter school attrition rates.

African-American students (iStock)

The number of charter and magnet schools across the United States has grown steadily over the past two decades, educating just under 50 million students as of 2010. Proponents of charter schools point to some improved student outcomes and financial management compared with traditional public schools; in particular, charter schools are framed as a way to close the educational achievement gap for students of color. But the data relating to student performance is mixed, and outcomes depend on context.

A 2011 study from the University of Texas and Rice University in the Berkeley Review of Education, “Is Choice a Panacea? An Analysis of Black Secondary Student Attrition from KIPP, Other Private Charters, and Urban Districts,” used student completion rates, not test scores, as an alternate measure of school performance. The study examined individual-level data from the Texas Education Agency to compare Black student attrition from privately operated charter districts in Texas to their urban public school district peers from 1998 to 2008. The study’s definition of a high school student “leaver” includes a traditional school dropout as well as “a student who graduates, receives a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, continues high school outside the Texas public school system or begins college….”

The study’s findings include:

  • The dropout rate for privately operated charter districts in Texas (13%) is more than three times that of their urban public district counterparts (4%). The rate of leavers of charter schools (defined separately from dropouts) is roughly double that of charters’ urban public counterparts.
  • Charter schools that serve predominantly black students have a lower dropout rate (11%) than both the average charter dropout rate (13%) and the dropout rate of charters with less than 100 Black students (22%).
  • Black students attending Texas charter schools tend to cluster in larger urban districts such as Houston and Dallas. “Charter districts that enrolled more than 100 Black students matriculated 325 Black secondary students on average while districts with fewer than 100 enrolled 17 Black students on average. These findings suggest that Black students are segregated in Texas charter schools.”
  • Across Texas, the “vast majority of privately-operated charter districts serve very few Black students … [D]espite the claim that 88-90% of the children attending [leading] charters go on to college, their Black secondary student attrition rate surpasses that of peer urban districts.”

The authors conclude with the following note about the implications and causes: “[T]his analysis is not a look at ‘Which kind of school is better?’ or ‘Do charters save Black kids from bad public schools?’ Rather, it poses the larger question, how should student leaving be considered in the debates about charter-school effectiveness? We know that kids leave schools for many reasons, and many may have left KIPP and other charters not to drop out, but to return to their neighborhood public schools for a broader array of courses, athletics, the arts, and extracurricular activities. Some may have left because their family and work obligations conflicted with the longer school days in many charters. More research will be needed to discern the reason privately operated charters have high rates of leavers.”

Tags: African-American, youth, charter schools, civil rights

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