charter kids go to college

Do ‘no-excuses’ charter schools lead to success after high school? At one high-profile network, the answer seems to be yes

PHOTO: YouTube / Noble Network

Many so-called “no-excuses” charter schools — often featuring longer school days, intensive tutoring, and strict discipline — have high test scores. But critics often say those scores are unlikely to translate into outcomes that really matter, like getting through college.

This debate is far from over, but a new study offers evidence that attending the Chicago-based Noble charter network does help students succeed after high school.

Authors Matthew Davis and Blake Heller compared students who got a seat at Noble’s original high school through a lottery to those who applied but lost. They find that attending Noble meant a student was 10 percentage points more likely to enroll in college and stay for at least four semesters.

Noble’s students were also much more likely to go to more selective and four-year colleges, where other research has shown students are more likely to ultimately graduate.

“The increase in [college] quantity did not come at the expense of quality,” Davis and Heller write.

One big caveat: there was no statistically significant effect on college graduation, so it’s not clear whether how many students at Noble’s first school made it all the way through their undergraduate years. This may be due to limited data, since the researchers were only able to track a small number of students for four years after high school.

Still, the data is good news for the network, which now has 18 campuses and enrolls more than 12,000 students — about 10 percent of Chicago public high school students. (Noble has recently been in the news as some teachers, who have pushed to form a union, accused the network of illegally blocking organizing efforts, a charge the leaders have denied.)

The researchers can’t make the same claims about all of Noble’s schools as they do about its original campus. As the network expanded, many schools weren’t oversubscribed and so did not hold lotteries, which means students can’t be compared in the same way. But using a less rigorous approach, the researchers estimate that Noble students in more recent years and at more schools maintained a big advantage in college enrollment.

“The best evidence we can muster indicates that Noble students continue to outperform expectations even during the network’s rapid expansion,” the researchers wrote.

One key question is why Noble charter schools seem to be succeeding. Past research has linked certain common charter school practices, like intense tutoring and longer school days, to higher test scores. A follow-up study showed that those practices, when paired with a notable infusion of cash, led to achievement gains in district schools in Chicago, Denver, and Houston.

But a concern is that the positive effects seen at Noble may also be due to practices that can’t — or shouldn’t — be scaled.

For instance, the study shows that 60 percent of students applying to Noble’s original high school were female. This is even more extreme than the national trend in charter schools to enroll more girls than boys. (Notably, the long-run gains from attending Noble appeared to apply equally to both boy and girls.)

The authors also note that Noble previously imposed financial penalties on students: “Students with twelve or more detentions were required to cover fees totaling $140 for a behavior-improvement class.” Noble ended the widely criticized practice in 2014, though their approach to school discipline remains the subject of scrutiny.

Meanwhile, prior studies on “no-excuses” charter schools and students’ longer-term success have been more of a mixed bag.

In Boston, charter high schools boosted students’ test scores and four-year college enrollment, but actually decreased on-time high school graduation rates.

In Texas, “no-excuses” charters led to higher college enrollment and persistence, but did not have a statistically significant impact on earnings as an adult. (Other charters in the state had negative effects on test scores, four-year college enrollment, and earnings.)

In New York City, a Harlem Children’s Zone charter school decreased rates of incarceration (for boys) and teen pregnancy (for girls). It also increased college enrollment rates, though not students’ likelihood of staying in college.

And in Chicago, consistent with the latest research, charter high schools led students to graduate from high school and enroll in college at higher rates.

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to research on Democracy Prep charter schools in New York City. In fact, the study was of a Harlem’s Children’s Zone charter school in New York City.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.