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IBO: Charter schools do better job retaining young students than district schools

[Note: Some of these numbers were later called into question. See Chalkbeat’s update here.]

The Independent Budget Office’s latest report shows that young students leave charter schools at lower rates than they leave nearby district schools. But when it comes to retaining students identified as having special needs, charter schools have a far worse record.

Just 20 percent of students with special needs who start kindergarten at a charter school remain there by second grade, compared to 50 percent of students with special needs at district schools who start and remain there. Overall, 70 percent of charter school students stayed put from kindergarten in the 2008-09 year until third grade in 2011-12, compared to 61 percent of students who stayed put at a sampling of nearby district schools.

The findings undermine one criticism of charter schools, that they frequently push students to enroll elsewhere, but provide fuel for another, that the schools disproportionately fail to serve students with special needs.

The report also says nothing about what happens to students after third grade, when student test scores start counting in schools’ averages. Officials from the United Federation of Teachers said that in their experience, charter schools lose more students then.

Still, the report shows that charter schools held onto more of their kindergarten students in each category when broken down by race and ethnicity, free and reduced-price lunch eligibility, and English Language Learner status.

“If you look at students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch, Hispanic students, African-American kids, we do a better job than the district does, and that is simply revelatory and again contrary to accepted wisdom,” New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman said.

The numbers reveal that student mobility is very high in both kinds of schools—a statistic with implications for student achievement. Research has shown that students who move schools typically score lower than students who remain at one school.

Charter schools could be at an advantage for holding onto students because the families that enroll must complete an application process that requires planning ahead and an expectation of where they will be living six months later.

But special education mobility numbers at charter schools are especially high, with only one in five kindergarten students remaining where they started by third grade.

“On special education, we don’t do a good job at attracting or keeping kids,” Merriman said. At district and charter schools, “That’s not acceptable, and we have to change that reality,” he said.

Merriman said he didn’t have a full explanation for the charter schools’ low special education retention numbers, but he noted that many small charter schools had difficulty providing the space and and services that high-needs students often require.

“I suspect in part, parents who have special education students are very involved and are looking for the best place where their kid is going to be valued. And charters just may not be getting the job done,” Merriman said.

Students who leave charter schools are much more likely to end up in a district school, since few charter schools take students mid-year or take many students in the older elementary grades. They are also more likely than their district school peers to have been further behind the rest of their grade in math, the report shows.

Today’s report uses data from the Department of Education and looks at all 53 charter schools serving those grade levels over that three-year period. It paints a more dramatic picture of charter school special education students’ mobility than a report from Manhattan Institute researcher Marcus Winters released last fall, which focused on the charter school special education gap.

That report noted that special education students are especially likely to leave the school they’re at, regardless of school type, but said that traditional public school students were more likely to do so. That report looked at the same time period but used a broader set of traditional public school data and a narrower set of charter school data, with information coming from 25 self-selecting charter schools.