The Palm Beach Post reported yesterday on the graduation rate disparity between district and charter schools in Palm Beach County, one of the biggest school districts in the nation, and the numbers sure made charter schools look bad.
Though the district graduation rate was 76.3 percent, district-run schools had an 82 percent rate while charters had a 37 percent rate, according to an analysis by the district’s director of research, evaluation and assessment. He blamed charters for the 1-point drop in the district rate. “There aren’t as many students in charter schools,” he told The Post. “But there’s a distinct difference in what they do to our graduation rate.”
The disparity was so large our crack research team at redefinED took a dive into the state data to see what was going on. The first thing that stuck out about Palm Beach was the proportionally larger number of charter school students attending alternative, at-risk or special needs schools.
Including alternative and special needs schools in the graduation rate comparison isn’t fair since, according to the Florida Department of Education, transfer students are added to the same-grade-level cohort at their new school. For example, if a student enters X High as a freshman and transfers out to Y High just before the start of the senior year, the student would be added to the cohort of seniors at the new school. Thus, alternative schools are getting dinged on grad rates for enrolling students who transfer from other schools (while at-risk of dropping out) and then don’t graduate.
As it turns out, 57 percent of charter school students eligible for graduation in Palm Beach County appeared to be attending schools that identify themselves as alternative education or specializing in at-risk or special needs students. Only 2 percent of graduation-eligible students in the district-run schools were in a similar setting.
When you separate out these types of schools, the district graduation rate jump to 83.3 percent while the charter school rate jumps to 83.2 percent. In other words, when making an apple-to-apples comparison, charter schools in Palm Beach County don’t perform any different.
It should be noted that the “regular” charters serve more free- and reduced-price lunch students than their district counterparts, 55 percent to 37 percent. They also graduate 80 percent of their FRL students, compared to 74 percent within the traditional district schools.
Blaming charter schools for the 0.7 point drop in the overall district graduation rate is premature. This is especially true when you consider that Mavericks High School – a charter that serves at-risk student – is just two years old. Those students had to come from somewhere and it is highly likely the vast majority came from district-run schools. Had Mavericks never been founded, many of those kids (most of whom did not graduate with a four-year standard diploma) would have been counted against their district-run school. That alone would constitute up to a 2.2 point drop in the graduation rate of district-run schools.