Let’s talk about charter schools. Upfront warning, this page turned out to be much longer than I intended. I’m going to start with the data I’ve uncovered, in the order I dug it up. Then I’ll share some of my opinions on it. If you get to the end of that and aren’t too exhausted, I’ll cover why I went digging in the first place, some biases I had starting out and what you can do if any of the info causes you to form an opinion one way or the other.
Two disclaimers to start:
Unless otherwise noted, I didn’t include data from charter schools that I identified as being strictly for adult education or existing solely as virtual schools (though a separate page will get into the crazy amounts of money going to virtual schools).
This data’s the results of my best efforts, but it’s certainly possible I made a mistake somewhere. If you think you spot one, please contact me and let me know.
A 31.8% failure rate since 2006
To be clear, that’s a total failure rate, not an annual one.
Indiana’s first charter schools were established just over 20 years ago, in 2002. I can’t look quite that far back, as Indiana’s available school enrollment data only goes back to 2006. I started there and looked up enrollment numbers for each year through the present in an attempt to identify all closed charter schools. Some very quick takeaways:
In 2006, there were 6,703 students attending 28 charter schools.
This school year, there are 34,684 students attending 90 charter schools.
During that span, a total of 132 charter schools have operated in our state and 42 of those no longer exist
If you’re like me, you may be thinking ‘that’s interesting trivia, but what does it mean?’ Certainly, it would be pretty shocking if 31.8% of public schools in our state had closed over the past 17 years, but for charters? It’s hard to say as we don’t have a great baseline for comparison.
I ran some numbers and found that the 42 failed schools accounted for 16% of total enrollment over the period. With Indiana’s ‘the funds follow the student’ model, that translates into a lot of taxpayer money paid to organizations that no longer exist, but it’s impossible for me to say how much. I couldn’t find anything even close to providing that level of transparency.
So the failure rate seems high, but maybe that’s just a natural extension of Indiana’s education market at work, right? Maybe we’re winnowing out the bad charter schools and keeping the good ones. Let’s move on to performance.
No grades for over a third of charters?
Indiana grades schools on an A-F scale. It’s a system that’s generated controversy over the years and certainly has been subject to legitimate criticism. That said, it’s what we have, so it seemed like a good place to start in terms of evaluating the performance of the charters that survived to those that didn’t.
I looked up each of the 132 charter’s most recent grade. Here’s a summary of what I found.
Some quick notes on that table:
Indiana only offers grading data going back to schools that were still operating in 2013, so the ‘Too Old’ category represents the 6 charters that closed before then.
Indiana also seemingly hasn’t published grades since 2020, so charters established in the past couple years fall into the ‘Unavailable’ category.
The ‘Unavailable’ category also contains what felt like an oddly high number of schools that simply had no grade assigned.
At first blush, the data doesn’t rule out a winnowing process, but it’s far from strong evidence supporting the idea.
Also, if you take out private schools, there are 1,801 schools listed on the state’s latest A-F report. Grades are unavailable for 54 of them. So while charters account for 5.0% of the schools on the list, they account for 61.1% of those with no grade available. Put another way, while grades are available for 98.7% of traditional public schools, they’re only available for 63.3% of charters.
The discrepancy bothered me, so I decided to look up ILEARN proficiency rates.
A 2.7% proficiency rate earns an... A?
ILEARN is a standardized test Indiana currently uses to evaluate academic performance of schools and districts for grades 3 – 8. Generally, the most widely reported number is the proficiency rate for math and English learning arts. It represents the percentage of students who are rated as proficient or better for their grade level in both math and English.
For reference, the statewide proficiency rate for 2022 is 30.2%. If you’re unfamiliar with ILEARN and that number alarms you, it’s not as bad as it sounds. In no way is it good, but it also appears worse than it is due to a combination of changes in testing standards and fallout from an abrupt shift to virtual learning during the pandemic. I’ll include a link with more explanation at the bottom of the page.
When I started cross-referencing 2022 ILEARN data with A-F grades, I almost immediately encountered a school that had a 4.3% proficiency rate, but had received an A grade. A bit later, I came across another A-graded school, this one with a 2.7% proficiency rate. Then one with 3.0%.
Of the 90 charter schools I identified as currently in operation in Indiana, 72 have publicly available ILEARN results. Those 72 schools serve 29,646 students. The other 18 charters either only offer high school education, or are newly established and have yet to test their students.
If we place the 72 schools into deciles showing how they rank among the 1,868 schools that administered ILEARN in 2022, we get the following.
Obviously, that’s not great. At the same time, if charters are more likely to be established in districts that have struggled to meet state standards, one would expect them to perform below the state average, even if they’re outperforming their local district. Having over 80% of charter schools be in the bottom 30% of schools in Indiana felt a bit extreme, but some level of underperformance seemed likely to be expected.
So what if we compared the ILEARN rates for charter schools to those of the school districts in which they’re located? That seems like it should provide some more context.
73.6% of charters underperform their districts
To get to this data, I looked up the school districts where the 72 charters are located, then looked up the ILEARN data for each district. Here’s the top level summary of that data:
19 charters (26.4%) outperformed their district, including 9 (12.5%) that had proficiency rates more than double their district
53 charters (73.6%) underperformed their district, including 35 (48.6%) that had proficiency rates less than half their district
On average, charter schools’ proficiency rates were 5.7 points lower than their districts’ rates
I struggled with how to visually represent the data on this page. As I was considering that, I recalled that I’ve heard charter school advocates claim that it’s unfair to look at charters’ performance in their early years, as it can take them some time to find their footing. It occurred to me that we could at least superficially examine that claim by mapping charters’ current performance relative to their district against how many years they’ve been in operation.
Some explanations for what we're looking at in that chart:
Dots above the 0% centerline are charters that perform better than their districts, while dots below perform worse.
The percentages show relative performance. Two examples to illustrate: 1) the dot near 200%, 12 represents a charter school that’s operated for 12 years with a current proficiency rate that’s approximately 200% of the rate of the corresponding traditional public school district; 2) the dot near -200%, 12 also represents a charter school that’s operated for 12 years, but with its corresponding traditional public school district having a current proficiency rate that’s approximately 200% of its rate. Put more simply, the dot at 200% shows a charter achieving twice the rate of the district, while the dot at -200% represents a district achieving twice the rate of the charter.
Since we’re working with data that only goes back to 2006, 17 is the maximum number of years in operation on the chart.
Two charter schools were so far below their district that it would’ve made the chart unusable, so I manually changed them to -1200% to keep that from happening.
As we look at the chart, it’s worth keeping in mind that we’ve already seen 31.8% of charters fail. That means that it’s extremely likely the newer charters with very low relative performance will close and drop out of the data set, which would explain why we don’t see as many of them as the years in operation increases.
Additionally, if we look at the range of charters in operation from 7 – 12 years, only one is currently outperforming its district. That would seem at odds with the idea that once charters get several years of experience, they offer a superior option. That hypothesis might get some traction from the fact that among charters with 13 – 17 years of experience, slightly more outperform their district than not. At the same time, it seems intuitive to think that the longer a charter fails to achieve equal performance with its district, the greater the chances it fails to attract adequate students and has to close.
I want to start by unambiguously saying that there are a lot of great people in both traditional public schools and charter schools. While I think there’s a lot of room for discussion on how to best provide a high-quality education to all kids, it’s important to recognize that both types of schools employ a lot of dedicated people doing their best, especially at the boots-on-the-ground level.
Additionally, not all charters are created equal. There are charters dedicated to kids with special needs. There are charters dedicated to kids with substance abuse problems. There are charters that think they have a better take on how to educate kids. There are charters that want primary and secondary education to come with a heavy dose of political indoctrination. When we lump charters together for the purpose of discussion, we’re glossing over some very significant differences.
That said, I have some big reservations about Indiana’s wholesale embrace of charters.
Free Market Fallacy
When proponents advocate for charters, they frequently frame the discussion in terms of free market forces. If you introduce competition, they claim, innovation follows, the best rise to the top and others follow in their footsteps. I mean, if we can think of an example of this happening in the business world, surely it could happen with schools too. Right? Wrong.
The primary driver of innovation in the free market is potential profit. Take big risks, reap big rewards. Except charters are rightly required to be non-profit entities. That makes sense. While we certainly want schools to operate cost effectively, we want their priority to be providing the best possible education to the students they serve, not maximizing their bottom line.
Additionally, if a school discovers a new approach that improves the outcomes for its students, that information should be shared far and wide with other schools so that the whole of our education system can improve. We definitely don’t want to promote an environment where a school would keep such information secret so as to maintain a competitive advantage.
In short, advocating for a free market approach to schools requires either 1) blatantly ignoring the fundamentals that make a free market work in the first place or 2) viewing K-12 education as an opportunity to make some cash as opposed to a public good that benefits the whole of society.
Tossing Schools Into a Cage Match
Indiana’s approach to school choice resembles a cage match more than a free market. Have a school district that’s underperforming? Or hell, even one that’s doing quite well? Let’s toss some charters into the mix and they can duke it out for state funds. Fight for your lives, schools.
For many who mention a free market approach to schools, they’re really talking about a survival of the fittest situation where we force schools to compete for limited resources. In their mind, if you split a group of educators into two underfunded groups and make them compete, you’ll get a superior result to if you had them all working together collaboratively in a single, appropriately funded group.
Let’s consider a hypothetical school district of very average performance. We’ll say it has two elementary schools serving 800 students, a middle school serving 400 students and a high school serving 500 students
What happens if a K-8 charter opens to ‘compete’ with the district?
If the charter draws 25 students per grade, that’s 225 kids pulled from the traditional school district, or about 19% of its K-8 enrollment. Maybe we think that the district would lay off one teacher from each grade, leaving it looking like this.
Except, in Indiana’s ‘the funds follow the student’ model, the school loses more money than it can make up by laying off 9 teachers. At a minimum, a district should expect to lose about $6,500/student. That 225 students translates to $1,462,500.
Our governor is trying to get average teacher salary to $60k/year. It’s currently below that and elementary and middle school teachers make less than those in high school, but let’s use that $60k as a jumping off point. Let’s also assume the district has another $20k/teacher expenses for insurance and benefits.
At $80k/teacher, the district has to lay off 18 teachers to make up the funding the charter has cost it. So, the post-charter landscape likely looks closer to this.
Beyond that, which students left for the charter? Well, charters don’t generally offer bus service, so they come from families who have the ability and desire to drive their kids to and from school each day. It’s also obvious that they come from families with parents involved enough to go to the trouble of seeking out and changing their kids’ school.
The kids may not be top students across the board, but they have several advantages going for them that at least some of the students left at the district do not.
This is obviously pretty simplistic, but the general principles are straightforward. With less staff per student and a higher departure rate for students with known advantages, the district’s performance will almost certainly go down. Indiana may drop its grade. Teachers will be under increased pressure to bring things back up. Those factors will further deteriorate morale, which already has taken a hit from layoffs.
We could keep pulling this hypothetical thread. Maybe news of the district’s grade dropping causes more parents to transfer their kids. Maybe it becomes untenable to keep both elementary schools open. Maybe another charter comes in and takes one of locations off of taxpayers’ hands via Indiana’s $1 law. Then, the district would have two charters to deal with.
Now consider what any of that coming to fruition does to the morale of teachers, who are educated, qualified and generally underpaid. Is it any wonder Indiana is three years into a teacher shortage?
Intentionally Leaving Kids Behind
I’m obviously not sold on charters being able to provide a superior educational alternative, but the politicians who support them claim to be. Let’s briefly follow that line of thought.
In the previous example, I mentioned that, by default, kids who attend charters will have parents who are being proactive in their lives. Those parents also have the stability and means to commit to handling their kids’ transportation to a school without bus service.
But say you’re a kid of a struggling single parent? Or of two parents, both of whom have demanding work hours? Or maybe just of parents who maybe don’t care about your future as much as they should?
Well, if you’re a kid in one of those situations, sorry about your luck. You’re stuck at the school district that the state’s defunding to provide a charter option to kids with parents who have the will and ability to get their kids there.
In other words, if the charter system works as its legislative cheerleaders proclaim, it intentionally pulls back help from the kids who need it most. That doesn’t seem great.
Other Arguments Against Charters
I haven’t touched on issues some organizations raise about charters’ reduced accountability, financial reporting and certification requirements. If you want a bit more on those, you can check out this article on the billionaires giving Indiana legislators hundreds of thousands of dollars to push a charter school agenda.
Why I went digging into charter school data
In the spring of 2023, I offered testimony to the Indiana Senate School Funding Subcommittee regarding the proposed state budget, HB 1001. (To be clear for those unfamiliar with that process, anyone can offer testimony. Showing up and waiting 6 hours to talk for 3 minutes doesn’t make me or anyone else an expert.)
I specifically offered comment on the portions of HB1001 that seek to expand Indiana’s voucher program to provide private school vouchers to wealthy people.
Following my comments, Senator Liz Brown pushed me to take a stance on charter schools, a topic I wasn’t very knowledgeable about. I felt she clearly wanted to argue me into agreeing with her position that they should receive more of our money allocated to K-12 education. I wasn’t comfortable doing so and said as much.
When I got home, I started digging into our state’s education data so that I’d have a better understanding of Indiana’s charter schools. As I spent 30-some hours of poring through available historical enrollment data, school scores, testing proficiency rates and more, I wrote this page. Thanks, Senator Brown, for pushing me to learn some new things.