By Russ Moore
The report, the seventh annual, is commendable: chock-full of well-researched statistics and compelling charts reporting America’s progress becoming a “GradNation” by achieving an average high school graduation rate of 90 percent by 2020. Sadly, the predictable “spin” from groups with an ax to grind has also hit the streets.
Case in point: A recent article on the Education Week (EdWeek) blog has the tantalizing headline: “Charter, Alternative, Virtual Schools Account for Most Low-Grad-Rate Schools, Study Finds.”
EdWeek may not be an “enemy” of school choice, but a casual search of its website reveals definitive headlines critical of school choice (“School Choice Hasn’t Fixed Graduation-Rate Inequity in NYC, Study Says” and “La. Lawmakers OK Bill to Return New Orleans Charters to Local Oversight”) and more cautious headlines supportive of choice (“Most Parents Support School Choice, Finds Poll by Charter Advocacy Group“).
The story on “low-grad-rate schools” uses a statistical argument that makes it easier to mask a broader problem: counting the number of schools in a category rather than the number of students impacted. The unschooled reader might be horrified to learn that “Charter, virtual, and alternative schools account for a disproportionate share of U.S. high schools with low graduation rates (and) account for more than half of the U.S. high schools that graduate 67 percent or less of their students in four years.”
The story further inflames readers by reporting that only 7 percent of “regular high schools” are “low-grad-rate” schools, while 87 percent of virtual (online) high schools, 57 percent of alternative high schools, and 30 percent of charters high schools are “low-grad-rate.”
After a closer look at the math (using some relevant numbers not presented in the article for perspective), the story seems to fall short of its own headline’s rhetoric.
It reports that “regular” high schools comprise 84 percent of U.S. high schools – without giving the total number of schools. According to U.S. News & World Report, today there are 21,000 secondary schools. If 7 percent of those are “low-grad-rate” schools, there are nearly 1,500 poor performing “regular” public high schools in America.
By contrast, 182 virtual schools, 718 alternative schools and 50 charter high schools are “low-grad-rate” schools. That totals 950 schools, far shy of the 1,500 regular schools in the same category, and far shy of being the majority of low-grad-rate schools trumpeted in the EdWeek headline.
As a charter school advocate, I object to comparing 50 charters nationwide to nearly 1,500 traditional high schools in the same category while not reporting that more than half of charter high schools nationwide have graduation rates exceeding 80 percent. The GradNation report most assuredly does not document a crisis among charter high schools.
Also, the story’s premise deserves a challenge. It is a disservice to charters to lump them in with “alternative schools,” which are typically run as dumping grounds by school districts that compel attendance, rather than as true schools of choice for parents to select. The two types of schools have nothing in common.
An even better premise-challenge: Choices in education exist in the first place because of the lackluster record of traditional, top-down, centrally planned, bureaucratically governed public schools, especially the ability of those schools to serve at-risk populations well and show academic progress despite myriad new programs and public funds created just for that purpose over more than a generation.
To hold out those choices alone for criticism is tantamount to admitting that “our schools are failing, and so are our efforts to fix them.”
Georgia is the only state in the nation that has written into law “college and career academy” (CCA) charter schools. The vast majority of these charter academies are graduating nearly all of their students. Even more telling, at-risk students thrive at CCAs, even though CCAs were not created just to serve them.
Apparently, a choice-based focus on college and/or careers creates a relevance factor that causes all students to take an interest in their educations. Perhaps Georgia’s CCA charters can be said to be leading America’s quest to become a “GradNation.”
This commentary was written for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation by Russ Moore, the founder of Seamless Education Associates, who has helped start 20 college and career academy charter schools in Georgia. The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (May 13, 2016). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.