Study Gives Another Jeffco Anti-Charter Myth a Serious Blow

Tomorrow the Jeffco school board is set to cast a final vote on the 2014-15 budget. At the forefront of the discussion is the 3-2 majority’s proposal to share an extra $3.7 million of local property tax funds with public charter schools. Even though that would cut the gap in half, some still seem to find it disturbing that charter students should be treated even somewhat more fairly.

Two weeks ago, one of the two other board members suggested a “compromise.” Instead of the extra $3.7 million, Jill Fellman said, the board should allocate a smaller amount of dollars already approved by the state for charter facilities, and that if charter parents didn’t like it, they should go work for another tax hike.

Today, the Denver Post editors stepped in again and urged Jeffco to get over it already. Rather than seriously considering ridiculous phony compromises, approving the $3.7 million should be a no-brainer. On this front, the Post says Jeffco should emulate Denver Public Schools.

To this point, the foot-dragging opposition offers two replies. First, they say charters agreed to a much smaller amount of money from the 2012 property tax election. What they don’t tell you is that charter folks “agreed” to the amount “at the end of a sword.”

Second, they fall back on the line that because charters serve a smaller share of special needs students, they don’t need as much money. While it’s already been shown that argument doesn’t nearly begin to account for funding disparities, it also leaves unexplained the reasons why the enrollment rates are different.

As in Jeffco, the state of Colorado, and the nation as a whole, Denver’s thriving charter school sector serves about 2 to 3 percentage points fewer special needs kids than traditional public schools. Why is that? Critics like Gary Miron suggest the discrepancy is driven by charters counseling out students with disabilities. He says quotas should be instituted to make the numbers more even between the two sectors.

But Marcus Winters’ brand-new report on Denver for the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) tells a different and more complicated story. A few big takeaways:

  • Families of special-needs students tend to choose charters less — slightly when kids are entering elementary school and significantly when they are entering middle school. Is that because the information available to parents, how well charters market themselves, or some other sort of inertia?
  • The small special education gap between charters and traditional public schools grows as students move through the elementary grades. Half of that disparity is explained by the rate at which schools classify kids as having minor “learning disabilities.” The other half is accounted for by non-special ed kids transferring into charter schools to change the rate.
  • “Students with special needs in charter schools change schools less often than those in traditional public schools: Five years after enrolling in kindergarten, about 65 percent of charter students with special needs are still in their original schools, while only 37 percent of traditional public school students with special needs are still in their original schools.”

The last point blows apart the Miron theory. At least in Denver, where although there is definitely room to improve, they are doing something right. For a broader context, two Education Next writers offer some helpful context: CRPE’s Robin Lake and NYU Professor of Education Pedro Noguera.

While vocal Jeffco charter opponents want to raise up a controversy about a tangible gesture of budget fairness that fits well within the school district budget, their arguments look weaker and more desperate all the time in the light of new evidence. If there are other issues to explore an discuss, that’s fine. But don’t go treating kids who attend charters as second-class citizens just to make a political point.