March 27, 2019
by Matt Beienburg
Would you call an 11 percent graduation rate within the Tucson Unified School District a scandal? How about the cohort of Mesa Unified District students who produced not a single high school graduate within four years? Time to fire up the presses, storm the Capitol, and start demanding accountability and reform from our school districts, right?
Well, hold the pitchforks and torches just a moment, and let me first explain what this has to do with The Arizona Republic and charter schools, and why your ire may be misplaced.
The Republic recently scored the prestigious George Polk Award for Education Reporting for its investigative series on Arizona’s public charter schools, which the paper concluded have been squandering public funds and consequently ill-serving Arizona students and families. (For those unfamiliar, charter schools are publicly funded, independently operated, tuition-free schools meant to provide families expanded opportunities for their children.)
Regarding charters’ academic performance, The Republic reported that “Arizona charter high schools had a 77 percent graduation rate, compared with 88 percent for district high schools,” and that only “about the half the time, charter schools earn higher letter grades than their neighboring district schools” that “tend to draw from similar populations.”
The Republic’s latter finding turned out to be false. In fact, the paper itself acknowledged in its original report that charter schools serving kids in grades K-8 beat their neighborhood district counterparts roughly 60 percent of the time, as did over half of charter high schools. Yet as I pointed out recently in the Arizona Chamber Business News, an error in The Republic’s analysis left them to conclude that the wide swath of charters serving students in grades K-8 and 9-12 together on a single campus were failing spectacularly, beating nearby district schools less than 25 percent of the time and weighing down like an anvil the statewide charter average.
In reality, it turned out these K-12 schools’ letter grades are among the highest in the state and include some of Arizona’s strongest networks like BASIS, Great Hearts, and American Leadership Academy.
Yet The Republic seemingly never double-checked its bizarre conclusion that charters outperform districts in grades K-8 and 9-12 while suddenly imploding when they serve students from both groups, even as districts do just fine under this arrangement.
While it failed to issue a correction, The Republic has at least opted not to repeat its claim since the original award-winning report. Yet the paper has continued to repeat over and over the second pillar of its case against the academic performance of charters: the claim that only “77 percent of students at traditional charters” graduated high school within four years in 2017, compared to 88 percent at traditional district schools.
This, too, it turns out, is astonishingly deceptive.
The Republic rightly limits its comparison to “traditional” charters and districts to exclude “alternative” schools, which are intended to serve primarily hard-to-reach students who have previously dropped out of school, are significantly behind in credits, have a documented history of disruptive behavior issues, or have been adjudicated by a court. A disproportionate number of these students are eventually served by alternative charter schools after they’ve fallen behind in their district school setting, so including them in the average would, yet again, inappropriately weigh down charters’ graduation rates.
But while The Republic deserves credit for excluding these alternative schools from the graduation rates it calculated, the paper merits fewer commendations for the ensuing caliber of its investigative journalism.
And this brings us back to the torches.
Using the 2017 four-year graduation rate data published by the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) and excluding all schools listed in ADE’s 2017 roster of alternative schools, one finds that indeed, districts’ average graduation rate is 88 percent, or more than 10 points higher than charters’, as reported by The Republic.
Yet surely The Republic agrees that it would have been grossly irresponsible to make its sweeping claims based on ADE’s raw data alone, considering some of the outrageous culprits responsible for charters’ lagging performance. The Masada Charter School, for example, reportedly graduated an appalling 0 of 33 high school students in the class of 2017. The hitch: Masada only serves students through 9th grade (and it has received an A-rating from the State Board of Education for its job doing so).
Or consider the Vechij Himdag alternative school, which had served the Gila River Indian Community, or the Northern AZ Academy alternative school in Navajo County, both of which closed in between 2015 and 2016, so they no longer appear on ADE’s list of alternative schools, but still show 0 of 25 students graduating in 2017.
Or the AZTEC charter high school, where just 23 out of 57 students graduated in four years, according to ADE’s data. While not on the official list of alternative schools, AZTEC happens to operate “under the umbrella of the Yuma County Juvenile Justice Center,” where its “percentage of students on probation ranges from 40-60 percent during a year,” and where it was featured as part of a 2017 Arizona Capitol Times profile entitled “Yuma County Approach to Juvenile Justice a Model for State, Nation.”
It would be outlandish to compare AZTEC’s graduation rates against a traditional district school’s based on even this information alone. But the absurdity of such a comparison grows even worse when you discover that fewer than one in five of AZTEC’s seniors had originally enrolled in the school in 9th grade, or even by 10th grade. Rather, the overwhelming majority of its students joined AZTEC only in their junior or senior year, after struggling in other circumstances or school environments for the first half of high school.
This means that most of the students AZTEC “failed” to graduate within four years had spent all but the tail end of their high school years in other settings…like district schools.
Yet The Republic apparently found it fitting to gloss over such nuance, as it turns out that AZTEC is just one of several charter schools where an allegedly wretched four-year graduation rate really reflects the schools’ struggle to graduate students within four years…after just one year with them.
In fact, among a group of such schools with roughly 1,500 seniors between them, fewer than 300 of those seniors had started high school there, and fewer than half appeared on those schools’ rolls until their 12thgrade year. At the Sequoia Choice Distance Learning School, for example—which reportedly graduated just 36 of 173 students from the class of 2017 within four years—only 53 of the students had originally showed up as 9th graders back in 2013, and only 80 showed up by 11th grade.
Like AZTEC, Sequoia doesn’t appear on ADE’s alternative list, but this online school—which among its pathways offers credit recovery for students who’ve already fallen behind and where “a large majority of our older students attend…while working full or part time”—owes the surge in its senior class enrollment to kids joining the program in the 11th hour from other (i.e., district) schools.
In fact, after accounting for these schools—which skew the statewide charter graduation rates away from any meaningful comparability with districts—the resulting four-year graduation rate of charters would vault to 89 percent, virtually identical to that of districts. (And for those looking at truly traditional “brick and mortar” charters, excluding two additional distance learning programs would increase charters’ average 4-year graduation rate even further, to 93 percent.)
Now, for those of you who agree that charters deserve an honest account of their graduation rates, you can put down the pitchforks from earlier. But for skeptics dismissing this fuller analysis as spin, I leave to you the task of marching against the Tucson Unified School District for the seemingly abysmal graduation rate mentioned in the opening: You see, similar to the charter programs above, the TUSD Distance Learning Program—known as the “AGAVE Middle and High School,” which reportedly graduated just 14 of 128 students within four years—operates in conjunction with the Tucson Teenage Parent Program, tailors its GradLink initiative specifically toward “getting dropouts back to the classroom,” and overwhelmingly serves students who didn’t show up on its rolls for the first three years of their high school career.
But like several of the charters above, AGAVE doesn’t appear independently on ADE’s alternative schools list. Perhaps some readers would therefore think it appropriate to compare its performance to statewide averages. But for the rest, this should help illuminate the absurdity of judging analogous charters against traditional schools.
Finally, The Republic does deserve credit for its most recent investigation into ADE’s failure to vet which schools truly function as “alternative schools.” No school—charter or district—should be able to skirt accountability by soliciting an undeserved classification. And those schools that fail to uphold their mission—whether traditional or alternative—indeed warrant the wrath of parents, taxpayers, and the state education and charter boards.
But if The Republic had invested a mere fraction of the same effort that it did in its alternative schools analysis to disclose issues in the graduation data that it has repeatedly touted in its campaign against charter schools, it would have done a far greater public service.
Or perhaps the paper could at least have acknowledged that the very same source it used for its comparison of charter and districts’ A-F school letter grades shows (without any manual adjustments) that graded charter high schools average slightly more points on the graduation score rubric than districts.
Or it could have at least mentioned that charter schools’ graduation rates are based not—as you might intuitively think—on the number of students they successfully advance from 9th through 12th grade within four years, but rather on all students who transferred or dual enrolled there even as a last ditch effort after having struggled in a different type of school (or none at all) for years before.
As I have written elsewhere, The Republic’s attacks on charters’ operational and financial workings are largely misguided. But the paper’s portrayal of charters’ academic results—cited in the official Polk Award announcement—is wholly ill-founded. The Republic should acknowledge as much if the Polk honor it won is to remain more than a newspaper participation trophy.
Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.
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