There is an argument propagated by charter school critics that public charter schools systematically push out low-performing students. While critics do not provide evidence of specific examples of charter school policies that explicitly push out students, the hypothesis underlying the argument is that there are subtle policies—such as strict discipline and attendance rules, retention if students are not performing at grade-level, or expectations for parent involvement—that effectively counsel out hard-to-educate students. Moreover, critics contend that charter schools are under intense pressure to perform well, which may provide incentives to find ways to attract high performing students and to discourage low-performing students from staying. (However, traditional public schools face similar accountability pressures and may theoretically advise low-performing students to transfer to schools of choice in the district.)
A recent study of KIPP charter schools challenged the notion that there is more student attrition out of KIPP schools or that attrition explains higher levels of academic performance in the schools. Now, a new working paper by Ron Zimmer and Cassandra Guarino provides additional evidence that public charter schools are not pushing out low-performing students. The study examined patterns of student transfers in an anonymous school district with over 60 charter schools. A larger percentage of charter schools in the district met AYP compared with traditional public schools, making the district a good case study for examining whether charter schools were pushing out low-performing students in order to meet federal accountability standards.
The study finds no evidence that public charter schools were more likely to push out low-performing students. Conversely, the study finds that below-average students were five percent more likely to leave traditional public schools than below-average students in charter schools. The authors write, “In looking at different groups of charter schools (i.e., charter schools near AYP proficiency thresholds, low- and high-performing schools, primary and secondary schools), we generally find no evidence consistent with the claim of pushing out low-performing students.”
Even though the study provides evidence for only one school district, it is a good example of the empirical research needed to determine whether the persistent critiques of public charter schools are accurate.
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