Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


The Minneapolis Foundation generously supports MinnPost's Community Sketchbook coverage. Learn why.

Twin Cities charter schools fail to deliver promised gains, study claims

Once again researchers at the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota have crunched data showing that charter schools as a whole underperform comparable traditional public schools and are more segregated.

That means, according to the latest “Failed Promises”  study by Myron Orfield and Tom Luce, that Twin Cities charter schools aren’t delivering promised academic gains in spite of the fact that a high proportion of charters are essentially single-race schools. 

Grouping students by race or ethnic background has been touted by some as a sort of gold ring, the attainment of which would lead to higher academic performance as well as to closing the academic-achievement gap between races.

Charter enrollment in the Twin CitiesSource: Minnesota Department of Education

But the study released today by the Minneapolis institute finds that when controlling for factors such as poverty, students in charter elementary schools score 7.5 percentage points lower for math and 4.4 percentage points lower for reading than students in schools run by public school districts

A high proportion of the charters are also “essentially single-race schools,’’ the report says. For instance, in 2010 to 2011, 89 percent of black charter students attended segregated schools, up from 2000 to 2001. “Hispanic, Asian and Native American students were also roughly twice as likely to be in segregated settings than their traditional school counterparts in 2010-2011,’’ the study reports.

Segregation in Charter Schools

Source: Minnesota Department of EducationKey:
Predominantly White (Non-white student share <20%)
Integrated (Non-white student share between 20% and 60%)
Segregated (Non-white student share > 60%).
Data from the 2010-11 school year.

“The high rates of racial and economic segregation matter because research shows that students do worse in segregated school environments than in integrated settings,’’ said Luce, research director at the institute. The report analyzes Minnesota Department of Education data. 

The percentage of schools that are integrated is increasing among traditional schools operated by school districts, according to this study.

The study shows “that charter schools are not closing the achievement gap; they may be making it wider by increasing segregation,” stresses Orfield, director at the institute and a longtime proponent of integrated schools.

The full study, which also addresses management problems of charter schools, is here

Orfield’s last study on charter schools came out in 2008 with similar results.

‘Truth is more complex’

“Which is better, district or charter, is like saying which gets better gas mileage, the rented car or the leased car,’’ responded Joe Nathan, director of the Center  for School Change at Macalester College in St. Paul.

People should have the opportunity to choose among various kinds of schools, he said, adding, “This is the same story, 50th verse from Myron. The truth is more complex.’’

Look to the Star Tribune’s Beating the Odds list for evidence of success, said Nathan. That list features high-poverty schools where students are doing well and many are charter schools and some are schools with students of one race, said Nathan, a long-time supporter of charter schools. 

About that list of schools, Orfield said: “These are cherry-picked statistics” rather than academic studies.

Some charter schools have lower-achievement scores, Nathan acknowledges, as do some district schools. Nathan points to high-performance, poster-child charter schools such as Harvest Preparatory and Hiawatha Academy in Minneapolis, as well as Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul. He also said his center has worked with district and charter schools in Cincinnati to effectively close the racial achievement gap there.

State Education Department Commissioner Brenda Cassellius was traveling Thursday but has reviewed the report, according to Charlene Briner, department communications director. 

“Certainly the information in the report is compelling,’’ Briner says. “We have a vested interest in making sure that every educational opportunity whether online, traditional district school or charter school is delivering a high quality education to students.’’

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Joe Musich on 02/24/2012 - 02:05 pm.

    well how about that seniority issue etal. ?

    Does this mean that with all the attacks on union teachers and all the rights and benefits that they have fought and won they are the better learning environment dispite the lack of funding, the poverty and language issues, the mixed administrative messages, senority battles,huge class sizes and on and on they are doing a better job of educating the children of this state ?Maybe we should finally really look at increasing support for those students and their selfless and dedicated teachers and quite screwing around in fantasy land.

  2. Submitted by Eric Larson on 02/24/2012 - 04:51 pm.

    M. Orfields Swiftboat work for public school industrial complex

    1. You know that phrase you hear nowadays. Think facebook. “If the service is free, your the product”.
    It applies here. If Myron Orfleld is doing the study and reporting. It’s not about education, it’s about politics.

    2. Mr. Orfield accuses Joe Nathan of ‘cherry picking stats’. It’s called projecting. Mr. Orfield points out that some of these charter schools are not meeting the ‘average’ scores. Take out an old fashioned compass, center point it at a charter school in Mpls St. Paul or 1st ring suburb. Make the radius large enough to include the 10 nearest regular public schools. Then compare the grades. Don’t be shocked when the charter school trounces their compitition. Using all the schools in the state as the comparison base is bad research and any real scholarly professor would know that. Instead of comparing the local charter to other nearby schools with similar socio-economic backgrounds (which would prove his ftheory flawed). He chose to compare, or cherrypick, the state wide stats. That’s called projecting.

    3. Many-many kids at charter schools have already failed out or have been failed by the regular schools. The fact that they succeed at the charter is a blessing for all concerned. Why not measure how the children were doing at the public school and compare how they do at the charter. Better not, it will show how bad the reg-schools have failed.

    4. Mr. Orfield just won’t give up where he left off in the 1990’s as a Senator. Trying to get stats and science to fit into his political agenda of punishing suburbs. Teachers, principals, super’s, schoolboards and above all the unions just can’t stand charters. Think Telly Savalas in Kelley’s Hero’s.
    “There’s no dues, there’s no seniority, there’s no lawsuits, parents have control, there’s no action”.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/24/2012 - 07:09 pm.

    Joe Nathan is being kind

    He’s a gentleman and won’t call Myron Orfield what he is.

    Bottom line, parents of color now have a choice. The students are their children and they should be able to decide where their kids go to school. In fact, I’d be curious to see how many would still want to keep their kid in the charter school, segregated or not, even when presented with these statistics. My guess is they’d still want the freedom to choose.

  4. Submitted by Joel Gingery on 02/25/2012 - 06:28 am.

    charter vs public

    Does this study do more than muddy the water? The main findings have been known for some time. I am looking for information that informs my decision making process and/or suggests improvement stratgies beyond charter vs public.

  5. Submitted by Kent Strong on 02/25/2012 - 11:11 am.

    Half-baked Study

    I have 1 question for the folks that cobbled together this flawed study:
    Did they include gifted and talented students from traditional public schools and did they include magnet schools? If so, this is a meaningless comparison. Charter schools cannot test and select kids for gifted and talented or magnet schools and traditional public schools can. Take those kids out of the study and you will see very different results.

  6. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 02/25/2012 - 07:37 pm.

    It would be funny reading the hysterical responses of charter school defenders here if the education of so many vulnerable children weren’t at stake. That makes the response tragic. Charter defenders are the same people who are demanding “accountability” and data driven principles when it comes to teachers and testing, yet who go to absurd lengths to impugn real researchers who come up with results they don’t like. Study after study has shown that regular public schools, on the whole, outperform charters. Get over it. Charters are a failed experiment. The only thing keeping charters afloat are the political whims and power of those adults who benefit from the movement, including, importantly, so called “liberals” who have their boutique charters that allow them to remove their children from neighborhood schools. How many inner city and poor children must suffer inferior educations for the lies told by charter supporters?

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/26/2012 - 06:21 pm.

    Hyesteria is right

    I agree with Mr. Levine, the ad hominem attacks on Orfield are unconvincing. You know it’s funny, back in the late 70s and early 80s the conservative solution for the education “problem” was “back to basics”. Remember, at the time we had all kinds of experimentation and innovation going on in the public schools. Here St. Louis Park we had modular scheduling, no bells between classes, and a variety of college level subjects. In fact every high school in the twin cities was different Then we went back to basics. When that failed conservatives decided we need more innovation, but only if it was produced by free markets and people who don’t actually know anything about educating kids. This really is coming full circle. The sad thing is the way Liberals signed onto all this out of a misguided allegiance to consumerism, as if more “choice” rather than good instruction, state of the art curriculum, and sufficient resources would produce a better education. Now the free market faith is obviously impervious to facts and reason in some quarters.

    Let’s stop pretending that no one knows hows to educate children. Let’s stop pretending that if we produce schools like tennis shoes and give people “choices” kids will do better at math. And let’s stop pretending that innovation, personal attention, and healthy learning environments are “private sector” discoveries. And let’s stop pretending that peeling off funding and resources from schools that need them the most will produce better schools.

  8. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 02/27/2012 - 09:16 am.

    2 quick questions

    1. Is there a difference between assigning low income and students of color to a school and giving families options, including the option to attend a “Beating the Odds” school? Professor Orfield equates the two ideas, continuing to call both “segregation.” A variety of people of color have testified at the state legislation, saying there are important differences.

    2. Is it important that 80-90% of the schools in the metro area that the Star Tribune (a far more neutral source than either Professor Orfield or me) found to be “Beating the odds” are charter public schools?
    Professor Orfield continues to disparage this finding. Parents find it more compelling, which is why the number of students, esp low income and people of color, are selecting charters, continues to grow.

    3. There’s no single magic strategy. But the charter strategy allows people to develop new approaches, encourages districts to rethink what they are doing, and provides educators and families with the opportunity to create what they think research suggests makes sense.

  9. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 02/27/2012 - 09:39 am.

    I find four things quite compelling about Joe Nathan’s comments. First, he seems to have no problem with de-facto segregation. That to me is appalling.

    Second, he never even attempts to refute the indisputable conclusion that Orfield has drawn: Charter schools, overall, perform worse, academically, to traditional public schools. This is especially true for inner city children and children of color. See above my comments about segregation.

    Third, he cites “beating the odds schools” as anecdotal evidence that charters are ok. Of course anyone could cite scores of traditional public schools that are doing great work. Just look at Hopkins, Edina and Minnetonka.

    Fourth, whenever Nathan is confronted with the failure of charters to achieve higher academic performance than regular public schools he always retreats to political arguments. When I confronted him on these failures years ago he pointed out how President Obama was for charters! So what! Today he talks about how “people of color have testified at the the state legislation (sic).” He’s supposed to be an academic, but he’s always revealing himself to be just a political operator.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/27/2012 - 01:17 pm.

    Innovation and new strategies?

    As I pointed out previously, you don’t need charters to develop new strategies and innovations. We had all kinds of innovation in the public school systems here in the US until we decided we needed to get “back to basics” in the 80s. You can have experimentation and innovation in public schools, you just have allow it. Furthermore, it’s more rational to let actual educators do the experimenting rather than hope that someone else stumbles across something in a charter school. Focused research and curriculum would probably yield better and faster results. What we’ve done is divert resources away from trained educators in order to find out if real-estate agents can do a better job, and we’ve discovered is that they can’t do a better job. Who’d a thunk? In the meantime how much resources and funding, and time have wasted in this faith-based market experiment?

    The entire charter movement grew out of a religious right attack on the public education system. It started as a result of the voucher movement attempt to defund public schools. Liberals signed off on it because it looked like a neo-liberal free market solution to an education crises. It was always fundamentally illogical, why would an attempt to cripple public education produce better public education? There’s nothing really “new” going on the charters, at best all they’re doing is recycling decades old ideas with new technology.

    • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 02/27/2012 - 02:03 pm.

      It’s a form of “Shock Doctrine”, declare a crisis, trump up “evidence” (Nation at Risk), twist statistics, then propose a remedy which just happens to help corporate and right wing politics. In fact, if you look at NAEP statistics, education was actually quite good and getting statistically better over the years of voucher and charter promotion. The Sandia report of the early 90s actually said so. It even warned that attacks on teachers, who were actually rated as quite good both in terms of educational attainment and preparing students for the workforce, could harm the advancements. Current deformers are notable both for their mendacity and resistance to facts. It’s reached the point now where their efforts are bearing fruit. Negative fruit, to be sure. The achievement gaps the deformers so often point to are obviously related to income and wealth disparities, but those issues are off the table, given as to how those inputs would necessitate looking at the structure of a society that wants to abandon the poor and blame them for their own plight.

  11. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 02/27/2012 - 02:27 pm.

    School choice birthed in authoritarian racial animus and market

    BTW – I wrote a LONG series a year ago about where the school choice movement comes from. Understanding that school choice was birthed in racial animus makes Mr Nathan’s views on segregation all the more repugnant.

    School choice birthed in authoritarian racial animus and market fundamentalism

    School Choice, the bedrock of modern education reform, was born as an educational strategy in 1954, after the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate but equal black and white public schools were unconstitutional. The order to desegregate public education motivated Southern racist authoritarians to search for new ways to maintain their dominance and racial apartheid. After first trying pupil-assignment schemes to maintain segregation they eventually implemented educational “freedom of choice” and public support for private whites-only schools as a way to get around the court’s order, a notion immediately endorsed by free-market evangelist Milton Friedman.

    “Southern states and school districts,” wrote James E. Ryan in the Virginia Law Review in 2004, “relied on school choice as one tool in their strategy of massive resistance” to the school integration orders delivered by the US Supreme Court in its landmark 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education…

  12. Submitted by Jerry Von Korff on 02/27/2012 - 09:40 pm.

    Charter School Studies

    Here is a link to the Office of Legislative Auditor’s study on performance of charter schools. The OLA, which has no agenda, wrote: We found that, in general, charter schools do not perform as well as district schools; however, after accounting for relevant demographic factors and student mobility rates, the differences in student performance were minimal. Additionally, we found that charter school oversight responsibilities are not clear, leading to duplication and gaps in oversight.

    Yes there are good charter schools. But when they work, generally, its because they have greater funding per student, lower special education populations and lower special education costs, and exemptions from labor rules that prevent the use of best practices. They are an excuse for failing to insist that we do what works for all children in all schools. Charter schools have become a safety valve that allows state and local policy makers to avoid responsibility to fix existing public schools when they fail. Instead of providing the financial support and accountability to all schools, we provide additional financial support to a few schools and no accountability. Instead of insisting that all classrooms have high quality teachers, we pretend that creating competition from charter schools will somehow magically provide high quality teachers for all students. Its the same evasion that pretends that giving “Race to the Top” money to a few states, we are somehow creating nationwide reform.

  13. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 02/28/2012 - 12:19 am.

    Roots of district & charters public school choice

    Paul suggests that district public schools can be creative and offer options too. Agreed. Some of us helped start k-12 options in Mpls and St. Paul in the early 1970’s. At Center for School Change, we’re big fans of allowing families and educators to help create new options within and outside of district public schools.

    Regarding roots of public school choice: Some of you may be familiar with the African American psychologist Kenneth Clark, who wrote the famous “doll” study cited by the US Supreme Court in 1954 Brown v Board of Ed study. By 1968, Clark was deeply frustrated with existing public schools. He gave a speech, reprinted in the Harvard Ed Review, urging that new public schools, open to all be created outside the district context – created by unions, social service agencies, government groups and others. This was one of the founding statements of the charter public school movement.
    Clark, Kenneth B, “Alternative Public School Systems,” Harvard Education Review, Winter, 1968, pp. 100-113.

    Going back, one might say that the movement for school choice began when, in the 1830’s Horace Mann promoted “publicly funded common schools” that used the Protestant version of the Bible. Mann’s plan allowed wealthy families to opt out, and many did. Wealthy people has always had options – and the suburbs are the single largest government supported school choice plan. Please remember that people are allowed to deduct real estate taxes from their taxable income, as well as interest on home loans. This is clear government subsidy for a form of school choice

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/03/2012 - 09:27 am.

    Kenneth Clark?

    It is a stupendous distortion of history to cite Kenneth Clark as a promoter of charter schools. Clark was studying the effects of segregation, and promoting desegregation. His frustration grew out of the fact that that by 1968, public schools throughout the Dixie REMAINED segregated despite the 1954 Brown v. Bard ruling that mandated desegregation. Segregation was a political program supported by bigotry and racism. Segregation was not a product of the public school system, it was a product of Jim Crow. Private schools were used to perpetuate segregation and divert funding from the public schools…. sound familiar?

    There’s a fantastic book: “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South” by Osha Gray Davidson. Davidson tells the story of a black woman and a Ku Klux clan leader who come together in a battle to improve their public schools and end segregation. It’s an ambitious and well written book that provides a history off Jim Crown, the civil rights movement, and two remarkable individuals all in 300 pages. I wrote a book review back around MLK’s birthday:

  15. Submitted by John D Sens on 06/12/2012 - 07:42 am.

    Parents’ Obligation

    It is up to the parents to provide the best education for their children that they can. Often this requires doing whatever it takes to get the children out of bad schools and into good ones. There is a lot of disagreement over teachers, teacher unions, and political machinations to address social issues. These old arguments will go on for years; but children need help now – not decades in the future. But, there is no disagreement that some schools are better than others. So, the simple, effective, response for parents is to get the children into the better schools. Parents need to be alert that just because a school may be good one year, doesn’t mean it will continue. Eden Prairie’s recent attempts at social engineering lowered the quality of its schools, which saw many alert parents moving their children elsewhere.

Leave a Reply