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More kids are going to charter schools, but are they better?



The latest New York state testing scores show that charter schools outperformed all other public schools in Monroe County in three out of four English and math assessments.

The data comes from ACT Rochester, which compiles indicators on education and other issues in the Finger Lakes region. Executive Director Ann Johnson said 50 percent of charter school students in 2019 passed third grade English assessments. That's five percentage points more than results from other city and suburban public schools. Those students also have similar margins in third and eighth grade math.

Non-charter school students outscored charters on eighth grade English assessments by 7 percent, charter school students averaged 30 percent.

Johnson said that like all indicators, test scores are not everything.

“So you gotta keep in mind that testing is one vehicle of measuring progress in students,” Johnson said. “But you should look at it because it could be significantly different depending on who your student is.”

She said data from 2020 will not be available — the assessments were cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Right now, I feel like we’re in limbo without data from 2020,” Johnson continued. “What are we going to look at besides graduation rates, we need something that tells you what happened earlier.”

Bryan Hickman, the leader of charter school advocacy group E3 Rochester, agrees that the scores could be misleading.

“Each school gets kids that came from a different school,” Hickman said. “That’s true in the districts as well as charters.”

He said all schools have to build on what students learn elsewhere, in most cases the Rochester City School District.

In September, RCSD Chief Financial Officer Carleen Pierce told the Board of Education that about 6,000 potential city school district students opted to go to publicly-funded, privately-run charter schools this year. The district pays just short of $90 million for their education. There are roughly 25,000 students in the city school district this year.

Hickman said those numbers are likely going to get bigger because the waitlist to get into charter schools in Rochester is approaching 3,000. He said it's because parents value unique instruction, upbeat atmospheres, and choice.

“You get to choose which car you drive, where you live, what you eat.” Hickman said. “Why should you be stuck in one school system? It doesn’t make sense to me.”

A statement on charter schools from The Children’s Agenda, an education-focused nonprofit said, “children deserve educational options that fit their needs, but choice alone should not be the goal.” The organization added that there shouldn’t be bad school choices because all students deserve quality instruction.

Critics say charters may be better schools in some cases, but they may not help the entire ecosystem of public schools because only a small amount of students can attend them.

Hickman disagrees.

“It’s not that the charters are somehow taking all the good kids,” said Hickman. “They’re all good kids. It's the school’s job to make them all successful.”

Hickman said the relationship between charter schools and school districts around the country are better than it is in Rochester. He said he hopes it will no longer be combative.

“There are ways to take children in large urban settings and bring them to success,” Hickman said. “And we should all be working together to figure out how to do that with all the kids, regardless. There’s no reason why a district school can’t do what the better charter schools do.”

James Brown is a reporter for WXXI News, a media partner of CITY.