Setting the Record Straight on ProPublica’s Charter Story

ProPublica has raised an intriguing question about whether failed charter schools should be allowed to reopen as private voucher schools. But its latest investigative report would be more compelling if it were buttressed by more than 16 such cases across five states over two decades. Just 16 cases – and some of them were described by the reporter not as failing but as “struggling” – out of more than one thousand schools.
How does that amount to a “Reincarnation Plan” for the nation’s charter schools?
Here’s a fun fact: The lead example in the story, a former charter school called Orange Park Performing Arts Academy in Jacksonville, has not yet been approved to provide tax credit scholarships in Florida this fall. Such approval may well come, but ProPublica reporter Annie Waldman was so eager to highlight its conversion that she jumped the gun. Waldman reported that the school “awaits its first infusion of voucher funds later this month,” even though it already has lost out on that opportunity.
That Waldman focused on Florida, which has some of the most robust parental choice options in the nation, is fitting. But she quite conspicuously left out the results of 10 years’ worth of standardized testing in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. For the record, those tests show two things clearly: 1) the students who participate in the program were, on average, the lowest-performing students in their prior public schools, and 2) now on scholarship, they are now making the same annual learning gains as students of all income levels nationally. Further, she characterized the test gain scores that are also issued for individual scholarship schools as “only a small fraction” of the total without reporting that those schools have a lion’s share of scholarship students. Under the Florida law, those results are shared for every scholarship school with at least 30 students who have current and prior-year test scores.
Waldman also used an oddly cryptic way to describe the 102,000 schoolchildren who benefit from Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, writing only that they must “meet the income eligibility requirements.” A more precise description is that they are poor and mostly of color. The average household income is only 8 percent above poverty – essentially, $24,000 a year for a family – and 68 percent of the students are Black or Hispanic.
One final note: The principal at Dixon School of the Arts in Pensacola, another former charter spotlighted in the ProPublica piece, declined to give the reporter her students’ most recent standardized test results, saying she did not want her students defined by test scores. But after the reporter contacted Step Up For Students, the SFO’s vice president for its Office of Student Learning (a former deputy superintendent in one of Florida’s biggest school districts) obtained and analyzed Dixon’s results. She found that Dixon students tested in consecutive years showed average gains of 7 percentile points in reading and 23 percentile points in math.

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