By the numbers

District and charter schools post similar attrition rates, as enrollment debate presses on

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Stories of low-performing students being encouraged to leave charter schools have long fueled criticism of the city’s charter-school sector. But a new analysis of enrollment data shows that low-performing students are just as likely to leave district schools as they are charter schools.

According to the new research, when it comes to a student’s likelihood of leaving a school, “The combination of being low-performing and charter is not different from being low-performing and public,” said Marcus Winters, the researcher who conducted the analysis.

The report was published by the conservative Manhattan Institute, which hosted a discussion of the findings on Thursday that became a feisty referendum on charter school enrollment policy, just as state lawmakers consider increasing the number of charter schools statewide.

“If we’re going to have a conversation about whether or not we should expand the charter school sector in New York City, those conversations need to be grounded in the real data and not just anecdotes,” Winters said.

Winters used Department of Education data from all district and charter schools from the 2006-7 school year to the 2011-12 year. The analysis looks at students in fourth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades — excluding the fifth-to-sixth grade transition, in which most city students switch schools — and analyzed what happened to three kinds of “low-performing” students using state test scores: students who scored lower than citywide averages, those who scored lower than most students at their schools, and those in the bottom 25th percentile at their schools.

Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at 4.10.50 PM
PHOTO: A graphic from a new report that sheds new light on student attrition in district and charter schools.
A screenshot from a new report looking at student attrition rates at district and charter schools.

Attrition of low-performing students looks similar at district and charter schools, he found. (Winters didn’t focus on which schools had the highest or lowest attrition rates, but attrition rates ranged from 5 percent to more than 20 percent at 13 schools whose charters were up for renewal earlier this year.)

But while many district schools have to fill the open seats left when students leave, charter schools do not — something the report doesn’t acknowledge.

Many schools fill vacant seats, known as “backfilling,” for financial reasons or as part of a mission to serve as many high-needs students as possible. But not doing so, other operators say, enables schools to support their remaining students without the disruption of bringing in new students. It also means that schools with those policies would likely see average test scores increase over time, Winters acknowledged.

The debate took a combative turn at the Manhattan Institute panel, driven primarily by founder and former CEO of Democracy Prep Public Schools Seth Andrew.

“Are charter schools doing all they can to serve the neediest students? Resounding no,” said Andrew, who has recently been focused on encouraging other charter school networks to replace students who leave.

Andrew left Democracy Prep in 2012 to work as an advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. Once an outspoken critic of the teachers union, Andrew has waded back into the city’s education debates as a gadfly within the charter school sector as the founder of the parent group Democracy Builders.

During the panel, Andrew confronted other panelists, accused philanthropists in the audience of “subsidizing the kids who leave” with their private donations, and criticized the media for fixating on test scores as a sole measure of school quality without additional information about who is enrolled at the school.

The time to start “backfilling” students is now, he told the audience.

From left, Seth Andrew, James Merriman, New York Daily News Opinion Editor Josh Greenman, who moderated, and Winters. (Not pictured from panel: Ian Rowe)
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
From left, Seth Andrew, James Merriman, New York Daily News Opinion Editor Josh Greenman, who moderated, and Winters. (Not pictured from panel: Ian Rowe)

“Find a way to do it and find a way to do it today, because this train is coming and you want to get on board,” said Andrew, who said he plans to release a report next week with more details about the issue.

The panel also included New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman and Public Prep charter school network CEO Ian Rowe.

As lawmakers in Albany continue to debate whether the state’s charter-school cap should be raised, the panel reflected the tension within the city’s charter school sector between those seeking to keep the focus on its triumphs and those like Andrew, who say highlighting its shortcomings is healthier in the long term.

“As we move from laboratories of innovation to at least partial replacement or alternative to the district at scale, I think the answer at least politically and, for me, morally, certainly is yes we need to do more, have to do more and can do more,” Merriman said.

During a question-and-answer portion of the event, Derrell Bradford, a board member of Success Academy and CEO of New York CAN, an advocacy organization, said he “violently disagreed” with Andrew’s focus.

“I don’t think you can have that discussion without also having a discussion about scarcity in district schools,” Bradford said afterwards. “I just think this really needs to be about more good schools, no matter where they are, not just about whether or not we should be squeezing more needy kids into charter schools that already exist.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”