School choice supporters tout questionable data on charters

By: - March 22, 2017 5:30 am
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Charter schools in North Carolina are becomingly increasingly white and affluent. Those are two of the overriding conclusions derived from recent analysis of the state’s charter population by a variety of stakeholders.

But a new set of numbers circulating among prominent school choice advocates in Raleigh indicates the opposite, much to the consternation of public school backers in North Carolina.

The numbers, distributed at recent speeches by Mecklenburg County attorney Richard Vinroot, a former Charlotte mayor and GOP gubernatorial candidate who’s a major figure in North Carolina’s school choice movement, claim that the state’s charters serve a greater percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch as well as special education classes than do traditional public schools.

Richard Vinroot

Both claims fly in the face of a long-standing complaint from traditional public school supporters that charter schools—which are, in some cases, exceeding the academic achievements of their counterparts in traditional public schools—serve an altogether different population of North Carolina children.

But both of Vinroot’s claims, according to public school advocates and K-12 experts who spoke to Policy Watch, would appear to be, at best, distortions.

“These numbers mask the reality of segregation by race and class,” says Yevonne Brannon, a former Wake County commissioner who now leads Public Schools First N.C., a traditional schools advocacy group.

Brannon isn’t the only one complaining. Multiple advocates and officials who spoke to Policy Watch say they believe the numbers reflect a misleading new strategy aimed at propping up school choice lobbying efforts in the N.C. General Assembly.

[easy-tweet tweet=”“These numbers mask the reality of segregation by race and class..””]

“I am very much concerned,” says state Rep. Rosa Gill, a Wake County Democrat and former high school math teacher who sits on the N.C. House of Representatives’ education committee. “I think when our legislators have false information, we come up with legislation that is not in the best interest of kids.”

To make his points, Vinroot relies on free or reduced lunch data in charters. By most estimations, that’s not a fair assessment, experts say, pointing out less than a third of the state’s charters participate in that program.

As a result, critics tell Policy Watch they worry state leaders and the public are not being given an accurate portrayal of North Carolina charter schools, which have exploded in number since state lawmakers nixed the 100-school charter cap in 2011.

Today, the state counts 167 charters in more than half of North Carolina counties. Along with that boom, charter allocations in the state budget have risen from about $16 million 1997—the year after state lawmakers legalized charters— to more than $444 million in 2015-2016.

Charter schools are tuition-free, publicly-funded schools allowed broad flexibilities in their management, but are operated by private groups rather than public, elected officials. Charters, along with private schools and publicly-funded private school vouchers, have become lynchpins of the school choice movement in North Carolina and across the U.S.

But the rise of school choice coincided with declining per-pupil spending in North Carolina over the last decade, alarming traditional school supporters who say legislative budget writers from both the Republican and Democratic parties shortchanged public schools in recent years.

As Policy Watch reported in January, a recent Department of Public Instruction (DPI) report notes a growing gap between the number of “economically disadvantaged” kids served in school districts and charters. It’s a pivotal point because low-income children tend to score lower than more affluent children.

According to that DPI report, more than 50 percent of traditional public school students today would be considered low-income, compared to less than 30 percent of charter students.

In fact, charters’ share of low-income families has been consistently below that of traditional schools in the last five years, state records show, topping out with a difference of more than 23 percent in 2013-2014. That was the year North Carolina traditional schools reported a staggering 61 percent of students were hailing from poor families.

That same report notes the state’s charters are significantly more white, about 8 percent more to be exact, leading Dave Machado, the state’s office of charter schools director, to urge greater diversity in the bursting sector.

Helen Ladd

Meanwhile, the percentage of charter students considered “exceptional children” by DPI is about 2.4 percent lower than that of traditional schools, according to January’s report, despite Vinroot’s claims to the contrary.

January’s DPI report would seem to confirm parts of a key 2015 study co-authored by Helen Ladd, a Duke University professor of public policy, who detailed growing racial divisions in North Carolina’s charter sector.

According to Ladd, North Carolina charters are serving an increasingly white student population. Ladd’s report also found that charters’ overall demographics tend to mask the fact that a large percentage of the schools are either predominantly white or black.

Reached this week, Ladd agreed charter advocates’ figures were questionable, calling their assertions about low-income kids “way out of line.” Ladd also re-emphasized the stark differences between the populations served by North Carolina charters and traditional public schools.

[easy-tweet tweet=”“The individual charter schools are very segregated,” adds Ladd. “]

“The individual charter schools are very segregated,” adds Ladd. “That’s what I keep emphasizing over and over. Did we set up this structure of charter schools to serve predominantly white students? I don’t think that’s what we intended to do.”

But Vinroot isn’t too concerned with the veracity of his numbers, which were distributed at recent speeches before the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh, and at recent school choice events.

“I have actually asked the same questions over the months that I’ve been talking about them,” Vinroot told Policy Watch. “And no one has ever refuted them to my satisfaction. If they think I’m wrong, they ought to publish their correct data and put it out there.”

The Charlotte attorney says he obtained his figures from multiple sources, including former GOP lawmaker Paul “Skip” Stam, who served for eight terms as one of the most influential GOP leaders in the legislature, as well as charter network owner Baker Mitchell and DPI officials.

However, after being contacted by Policy Watch, Stam denied any involvement in the low-income and special ed figures; likewise for Mitchell, who acknowledged he helped compile the chart’s data on charter demographics and academic performance.

Officials in DPI’s charter office, meanwhile, said they did not assemble the numbers, but added that advocates often present DPI numbers in a different context than they would choose.

Vinroot’s numbers were presented alongside data that indicates charter students are outperforming traditional schools on end-of-grade testing. Experts say those numbers are mostly accurate, although public school supporters caution it’s important to note charter schools are serving a population that, historically speaking, tends to perform better academically.

“I don’t think there’s any question based on the numbers that the charter school population is different than your traditional district population,” said Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of N.C., a nonpartisan policy group in Raleigh. “It’s more segregated by race and socioeconomic status. It’s a creaming of the crop.”

The controversy over Vinroot’s numbers comes with many political observers expecting school choice leaders to press for state lawmakers to open more pots of public funds to charters this year. Similar legislation urged by Senate Republicans stalled before House education policymakers last year, but is likely to be revived this year.

Indeed, Vinroot, who once represented charter schools in a lawsuit against the Charlotte Mecklenburg schools over funding allotments, told Policy Watch that he believes charters, which do not receive state funds for school infrastructure, do not receive their fair share of operations funds.

“Funding has always been my top concern,” said Vinroot.

In an interview with Policy Watch Tuesday, Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C. Association for Public Charter Schools, hammered home those complaints.

“I always think charter schools are working hard to do more with less money oftentimes,” said Dillingham.

To make his point, Vinroot repeated an oft-cited figure by school choice supporters that charters receive just 75 cents out of every dollar funneled to traditional schools. To some, it’s an unverified claim that emerged from school choice advocacy groups like Parents for Educational Freedom during recent legislative sessions.

However, N.C. Justice Center analyst Kris Nordstrom, a former fiscal analyst for the legislature, published a report in September debunking the statement.

According to Nordstrom’s report, charter schools statewide receive about $215 more in local spending per student than their traditional school counterparts, although the funding amount varies depending on the district. (Disclosure: Policy Watch is a project of the nonprofit N.C. Justice Center).

North Carolina education experts say the debate over school choice is complicated, but they worry misleading data could be counter-productive.

“It would be disappointing if charter school advocates were using information that misrepresented who the schools served,” said Poston. “Because we actually have very many good charter schools in North Carolina.”

Brannon, meanwhile, suggested the school choice advocates behind Vinroot’s data are simply trying to boost their lobbying goals with misleading or even false statistics.

“Charter schools are still segregated more by race and income than traditional schools,” said Brannon. “This doesn’t show you how many schools are 75 percent white or 75 percent poor, even if there’s some comparable numbers in terms of race.”

Dillingham, however, says it’s more complicated than that. While Dillingham said she did not know where Vinroot derived his numbers, she pointed out charter data on low-income students is more difficult to obtain.

While state officials can rely on free and reduced lunch data to make informed estimates in traditional schools, charter leaders note their schools depend on self-reporting from parents. For that reason, some say the state may be undercounting charters’ share of economically disadvantaged kids, a concern echoed by DPI’s charter office in January.

Meanwhile, Dillingham adds that state law does not allow for charters, some of which depend on a lottery system for interested students, to shape their admissions for a more ethnically diverse population.

And while Dillingham stopped short of saying charters’ current population is skewed, she said policymakers and school leaders should pursue reforms to the lottery admissions process that would deter the type of segregation referenced by critics.

“I’m very nervous about any kind of segregation at all,” she said. “Historically, we don’t want to go backwards. We want to be inclusive.”

That’s a point shared by both charter skeptics and supporters who spoke to Policy Watch. Regardless, Poston emphasized this week that both sides should use accurate data to make their points.

“If you’re a charter school supporter, you want to have good charter schools,” said Poston. “You want them to be representative of the student population of the state. For the health of the sector long-term, it would be a good idea to try to do a good job rather than trying to make it look like you’re doing a better job than you are.”

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.