Graph of the day: How do charter schools stack up?


In yesterday’s graph, we looked at the proportion of Minnesota public school students that attend charters and found it to be quite low. Of course, the distribution of charter schools is not consistent across the state; some areas have no charter schools while others have several. Today’s graph looks at graduation rates in Hennepin County, which has one of the highest concentrations of charter schools. In the graph, green bars represent traditional public schools and blue bars represent charters.

(Data from the Minnesota Department of Education)

Clearly, there is a difference in the trends here, though several caveats should be raised.

The bulk of these charter schools are likely pulling from students who would otherwise be in the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) district. Still, when we look at how MPS alone compares to the nearby charters, we can see that it holds its own. Only two charter schools have higher graduation rates than MPS.

One could also argue that some of these charter schools primarily serve student populations already prone to low graduation rates (non-English-speaking refugees, students with learning styles ill-suited to a traditional public school environment, and so on). This is a fair argument, and I’m not setting out to bash charter schools that do their best for at-risk student populations.

Instead, I’d like to talk about what this graph means for the idea of school competition. One of the selling points for charter schools was that the competitive pressure they applied would encourage public schools to improve. As we can see, however, most public schools don’t have a lot to worry about in terms of competitive performance.

What public schools do have to worry about is competitive marketing. Even though charter schools, on average, are no better than neighboring public schools, they’ve benefited from several years of being hailed as the solution to education problems in our country. As a result, public schools are being forced to put energy into marketing themselves to their communities so that they don’t lose more money after years of lost funding. The time and money put into marketing public schools would be better spent supporting their real work with students.

All of this can be explored in more detail in our new report, False Choices, which looks at why attempts to create a competitive market for education clash with our demand for equity. Go ahead and take a look!

Correction: The original version of the graph in this blog reported graduation rates of 0% for three schools that had no reported four-year graduation rate based on Minnesota Department of Education data. The updated graph uses asterisks to indicate alternative data for the three schools.