The explosive growth rate of charter schools in Chicago since 2000 has not led to improved academic outcomes for students enrolled in those institutions, according to a new study.

The Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, which is based at the University of Minnesota Law School, evaluated a range of 2013 data points, including passing rates in reading and math, and graduation rates.

In a study of the city’s 119 charter schools to date, the Institute found that their students had a 41 percent reading pass rate, compared to 44 percent for those in traditional public schools during the 2012-2013 school year. For math pass rates, it was 42 percent in charters and 45 percent in traditionals. The average passing rates for black charter school students are 3.9 percentage points lower than those in traditional schools, researchers found.   

The Institute found similar disparities concerning reading and math growth rates, and in graduation rates.

As for racial demographics, the bulk of charter schools are in predominately black neighborhoods on the West and South sides, and those kids make up the bulk of charter school enrollment overall — 59 percent as of 2013. Hispanics make up 37 percent of overall charter school enrollment. Very few of the charters in the city have white students enrolled.

Based on the Institute’s count, charter school enrollment has increased nine-fold in the last 10 to 15 years, from 5,400 students in 2000 to more than 48,000 in 2013. Most of those students, according to researchers, go to schools that are no more racially-diverse or integrated — if not less so — than traditional public schools.

Researchers also contend that public schools — with disproportionate numbers of students who lack solid parental involvement and stable homes — bear a greater burden for educating their students than do charters. As such, “we should expect student achievement to be greater, all else equal, in charter schools, even if charters do no better at educating kids.”

The study, though, concludes that despite this greater burden bore by public schools, charter schools are actually underperforming their traditional counterparts in virtually all of the 2013 data points.

The report, which was released last month, also notes the popularity and expectations of charter schools among some families.

“Charter school advocates most often site improved student performance as the primary rationale for establishing and expanding charter school systems. Charter school parents and students actively choose their school in lieu of their assigned traditional public school, and charter schools get no students by default; they must attract them in some way. Both of these factors suggest that superior achievement rates might be expected in charters. In reality, the findings from an extensive (and growing) research literature show decidedly mixed results on this issue.”

The study cited a number of policy recommendations in response to its findings, including calling for a three-year moratorium on new charter schools and campuses in the city. Researchers also call on Chicago Public Schools to complete an impact study on how charter school policy has affected the district as a whole.

In response to the report, Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, called the study a “policy masquerading as research,” in an interview with Chicago Tribune. The results, he added, only focus on one-year of data, which is “just a snapshot in time.”

But the Institute cited similar studies done by others on charter schools that found strikingly similar results.

In a statement released by CPS, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett stressed that her district is committed to providing all students with “high-quality choices.” She said CPS is also holding all schools accountable for high academic standards, be they public or charter.

And CPS, she noted, recommended the closing of two low-performing charter schools last year, and has created a warning list for charter schools that aren’t performing. Some 11 charters have been added to that list since it was created last year, according to Byrd-Bennett.

In January, the Chicago Board of Education approved a charter school for Austin, less than a year after approving CPS’s recommendation to close four public elementary schools in the neighborhood. The school, which is scheduled to open in fall 2015, is slated to serve roughly 800 students.

Still, charter school opponents are underscoring the study’s recent findings.

Charters, says Austin education activist Dwayne Truss, don’t improve academic outcomes because they don’t address the underlying causes of students’ academic struggles.

“When you talk about students failing, you’re talking about the same issues of poverty, inequity and those social dysfunctional issues that poverty creates. This is an issue of poverty and equity,” Truss, assistant director of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, said. “If you put equitable resources in the schools, like you do other school districts, you may have improved outcomes, because those are the things you’re dealing with.”

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Michael Romain is founder and editor of TheVillageFreePress.org

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The Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity's study