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Charter schools dragging down grad rates? Look closer

lee-corso1The 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.

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BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.


Patrick R. Gibbons

Hi Chris,

The regular charter schools are getting the same graduation rates as the district schools but with a higher poverty rate. They are also graduating a larger percentage of their low-income students. That is impressive.

I’m sorry you and your friend Bob missed the point of the article but I will try to explain further. Comparing all charters to all district schools is unfair because charters in Palm Beach serve a disproportionately larger at-risk and special needs student population. At-risk students are students at-risk of NOT graduating. Comparing graduation rates of normal schools to schools that serve students which are statistically unlikely to graduate with a regular diploma in 4 years is simply unfair. This is especially true when you understand how graduation rates are calculated. If a district school pushes a kid with too few credits to graduate on time out and into an alternative school (district- or charter-run), it is the alternative school that takes the hit on the graduation rate. Thus, alternative schools shouldn’t be lumped in a comparison with regular schools because they are designed to serve a special population that is unlikely to graduate on time. Though these schools work to get kids a standard diploma on time, sometimes that is impossible and it takes 5 or six years to get the kid a diploma (but that won’t count toward the graduation rate).

I hope this makes sense. Thanks for reading!

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