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Middle school students of Queenshipp’s summer program learn to play spades on June 20, 2022, at New Legacy Charter School in Aurora. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Colorado elementary and middle school students attending charter schools excelled in literacy and math at higher rates than their peers at traditional public schools throughout the pandemic, bucking a national trend, according to a report published Tuesday by the nonpartisan Keystone Policy Center. 

The numbers are particularly positive for charter schools that educate a significant share of kids from low-income families, the report notes, indicating that Colorado charter schools have been more effective in keeping some of the state’s most vulnerable students on academic pace during COVID-19.

However, many elementary and middle schoolers enrolled in charter schools across the state are still falling short of meeting state academic standards, the report reveals. 

“Charter schools, as is the case with district-managed schools, are far from supporting most kids to reach the state standards,” said Van Schoales, senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center. “And so I think we have a real problem, not just in Colorado but nationally. We need to frankly rethink how we’re doing public education and how we fund it and how it’s organized because if we have a system that can’t get most kids to standard, then either the standards are wrong — which I don’t think they are — or the system is totally messed up. And we’ve been working on this for decades.”

Dan Schaller, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, is encouraged by the achievement of Colorado charter schools but acknowledges that they have more progress to make.

“I think it’s important to remember it’s against the backdrop of us needing to do a lot of work in the public education system in general,” Schaller said.

The report evaluated how schools are ranked on state accountability measures, known as School Transitional Frameworks, and looked at results of 2022 standardized tests, including the Colorado Measures of Academic Success and PSAT and SAT exams.

Colorado has 269 charter schools that educate more than 135,000 students, according to Schaller. Charter schools are public schools managed by outside nonprofit operators that establish a performance contract with a school district, which serves as the authorizer. The contract gives charter schools more flexibility than traditional public schools over how they educate children, but they are still subject to the same standards and assessments as traditional public schools. Charter schools are often born when families and communities recognize the need for a high-quality alternative and band together to create an application for a charter school with a different model than what their district-run schools offer, Schaller said.

“In many respects, they’re more accountable, but they are given the flexibility to have the school-based control over decisions related to staffing, decisions related to budgeting, to academic programming,” he said. 

The report from the Keystone Policy Center notes that 85% of charter school students go to a school that earned the highest rating on the School Transitional Frameworks — the “performance” rating. Meanwhile, 66% of traditional public school students are enrolled in a school that is rated “performance.”

Elementary school students of QueenShipp’s summer program paint with watercolor on June 30, 2022, at New Legacy Charter School in Aurora. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

At schools serving students living in poverty, the gap is much greater.

Two-thirds of charter students learning at schools with mostly kids from low-income families were at schools rated “performance” while 19% of students at traditional public schools where the majority of students are poor were enrolled in a “performance” school, the report stated.

“These do represent some of the largest gaps that I’ve seen,” Schaller said.

Charter school students in grades 3-8 fared better on literacy and math assessments than students in public schools run by districts, with 37% of charter school students — compared with 31 percent of traditional public school students — meeting or surpassing grade level benchmarks in English language arts. In math, 31% of charter school students met or surpassed grade level benchmarks, compared with 27% of kids in district-run schools, the report notes.

Additionally, elementary, middle and high school students attending charter schools demonstrated greater levels of academic growth in both English language arts and math than kids at district-run schools.

The academic gains made by charter schools during the past year built on momentum from the years leading up to the pandemic, captured by the Colorado Department of Education’s 2019 State of Charter Schools Triennial Report. That report, released in March 2020, details that charter school students consistently outperformed students from non-charter schools on CMAS English language arts and math exams from 2016-18. Similarly, charter school students performed better on PSAT and SAT evidence-based reading and writing and math exams during those three years than their peers at non-charter schools.

The report, published once every three years, also illuminates the demographics of students attending Colorado charter schools. In 2019, charter schools educated more students of color and more students learning English than other Colorado schools, but fewer students with disabilities and fewer students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch — a federal indicator of poverty. 

Schaller attributes at least part of charter schools’ success to how responsive they are to their students and families.

The charter school model is “inherently flexible and adaptable to the needs of a given school community,” said Schaller, who sees charter schools’ control over decisions driving much of their achievement.

The pandemic has highlighted “the power of a system of public school options for kids,” he said.

“Our kids aren’t all the same,” Schaller said, “and our schools shouldn’t be either.”

“An important part of the mix”

Another hypothesis related to charter schools’ higher achievement rates: how much time students spent in school and what happened when they weren’t in classrooms.

“It could have been that charter school kids were less out of school and … built more community when they were out of school than other district schools, and so when they came back, they may have been more ready to learn,” said Schoales, of the Keystone Policy Center. “And it also is possible that they may have had more summer opportunities or tutoring opportunities.”

When it comes to the success that charter schools have demonstrated in helping kids from low-income families make academic gains, Schoales suspects that charter schools are often set up to better serve specific groups of kids from the get-go.

“My theory is … because often schools are designed to serve a particular group of kids that they may be better at that because they go in with the intention of doing that,” Schoales said.

He added that charter schools are often smaller, and therefore can be more nimble and responsive. There is also often more communication with parents — who are key to their children’s academic outcomes — in charter schools than in district-run schools, Schoales said.

And yet, charter schools often are operating in poorer quality facilities with fewer funds, lower teacher pay and higher staff turnover, he noted.

“It does suggest that whatever the charters are doing, they’re doing it in spite of having often higher turnover and lower paid teachers,” Schoales said. “So what would happen if they had teachers paid at the same rates?”

Middle school students of QueenShipp’s summer program learn to play spades on June 30, 2022, at New Legacy Charter School in Aurora. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

While charter school students are achieving at a higher rate than their counterparts in district-operated public schools, more than half of all students are still trailing behind grade level standards in math and literacy.

“I don’t want anybody to come away from this saying, ‘Oh gosh, you know, charter schools are solving our educational challenges,’ and they’re not,” Schoales said. “They’re just doing better than the district schools, at least for this year.”

Their struggles are reflective of broader challenges schools have faced in keeping kids on academic track amid the pandemic, with disruptions — including lost time in the classroom and frequent transitions between in-person, hybrid and remote schooling — interfering with students’ ability to learn.

Students’ grasp of math has become a particular point of concern for educators, education advocates and even state leaders, with less than a third of Colorado elementary and middle school students meeting or exceeding grade level benchmarks and less than 35% of 11th grade students meeting or exceeding college readiness targets in math on the SAT. 

Across the country, student declines in academic performance ran parallel in charter schools and district-run public schools, according to reporting on scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress by Chalkbeat.

One reason that Colorado charter schools may have defied national trends is the balance the state has struck between the flexibility and autonomy it provides charter schools and the accountability it enforces on them, Schaller said.

Part of that accountability involves particularly high stakes: Authorizers — school districts — will move forward with closing charter schools if they’re not performing well, Schoales said, incentivizing charter schools to make sure students are reaching academic standards.

But charter school students don’t outperform their peers at district-run schools in every area, according to the report. For instance, SAT results show that 46% of 11th-grade students at charter schools met or surpassed grade level expectations on the English language arts assessment, compared with 50% of students attending traditional public schools. In math, one third of 11th grade students in both charter schools and district-run public schools met or surpassed grade level benchmarks.

There is also significant variation in academic performance among Colorado charter schools, similar to the wide variation in performance among district-operated public schools — discrepancies that are worth more investigation, the report states.

Schoales points to variations in funding, compensation, educator backgrounds and the educational design of charter schools as the reasoning behind the differences in their academic performance.

He also sees charter schools continuing to have a polarizing effect on educators, families and communities, with some lauding them and others vilifying them. He hopes that the more that research on charter schools emerges, the more that people will understand that “charter schools are an important part of the mix, and they sometimes serve kids better, and sometimes they don’t.”

And Schoales wants to veer away from the chronic political debates over whether or not charter schools should exist to focus on what he believes is a more worthwhile question.

“Instead, let’s talk about, where can we get some good schools?”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...