Close Look at Diverse Charter Options Helps to Tell Us What Parents Want

What do parents want? I’m not sure why people bring this question to me. Based on my somewhat limited experience, I tend to think the answer has something to do with keeping rooms clean, eating fruits and vegetables, minding manners, and not breaking things. When it comes to a child’s education, I think there’s more to the story.

Looking back over the last year-plus, it’s been a banner stretch for focusing on a diverse body of meaningful charter school research. It started with Marcus Winters’ Denver special education myth-buster. Winters has compiled the findings of his Denver and New York City research in a new piece for Education Next:

The conventional argument that charters enroll relatively few students with disabilities because they “counsel out” special needs students after they enroll is inconsistent with the enrollment data. In fact, students with disabilities are less likely to exit charter elementary schools than they are to exit district schools. More students with IEPs enter charter schools in non-gateway grades than exit them.

Beyond that important research, the following findings make for a fairly comprehensive and insightful list of mostly positive news since mid-2014:

Now, once again, AEI has gone down the road less traveled to explore the nearly unexamined question: “what do we know about the diversity of charter school options across the country?” The brand new report Measuring Diversity in Charter School Offerings provides what may be the largest-of-its-kind look at what kind of charters are out there?

Authentically higher test scores, which we clearly see in significant parts of the charter sector, are great. But it’s far from the only motivator for students and parents seeking options. If you remember back far enough, another study this past year about New Orleans also reminded us that parents often don’t make choices based primarily on academic achievement.

AEI dug into the public educational landscape of 17 cities, covering 471,000 students in 1,151 charter schools. Using a sound but admittedly subjective methodology, they identified almost exactly half of the charters as offering some sort of specialized program or content (e.g., military, arts, hybrid, progressive, vocational, or classical).

My favorite discovery? Apparently there are a decent number of “public policy” charter programs — mostly in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. — defined as “schools that focus on civic engagement, political knowledge and participation, and development of public policy knowledge.” How intriguing to a young edublogging prodigy like myself!

None in Denver, though. With data used for the report from the 2012-13 school year, the 40 DPS charter schools tend to align with the national rates of “general” vs. “specialized” options — heaviest on STEM (no doubt prominently bolstered by DSST), “No Excuses” (including KIPP and STRIVE), and international programs.

A couple other interesting takeaways from AEI’s report include a small relationship between more charter authorizers and more specialized schools; and a similar correlation between wealthier communities and fewer specialized schools.

What does that mean for a place like politically heated Jefferson County, Colorado, where the current range of charter options is focused on the more affluent parts of the district and somewhat heavily weighted to Core Knowledge and Montessori schools? For one thing, it tells us that there may be some important differences in what sort of educational options suburban communities tend to seek as opposed to their urban counterparts.

In the end, though, it’s all about parental choice and demand. While some families’ educational decisions are highly motivated by test scores, there’s more diversity to the equation than even the smartest planners know.