Putting charter theories to the test: an examination of student mobility in Dayton

Fordham’s hometown of Dayton is famous not only for the Wright Brothers but also for being a school choice mecca. Annually since 2006, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has put Dayton on its top-ten list of charter communities by market share (27 percent of public school kids in the city attend charter schools). Another 1,500 children use a state-funded voucher to attend a private school of their choice. 

With more than a third of all children in the city now utilizing school choice, the Gem City is an excellent place to test theories and arguments about charter schools and choice more generally, which is exactly what we’ve recently done with two theories about charter schools.

The first is a favorite of charter school advocates — that parents will make sound decisions about schooling and select high-performing schools for their children while shunning low performers. If this theory holds true over time, parents’ positive and proactive school selection will lead some schools to improve and weak ones to close as the high performers gain market share. In short, parents will be picky consumers and good schools will thrive while bad schools wither.

The second theory has been promoted by charter school opponents since the first charters opened their doors in the 1990s and holds that charter schools drain public schools of students and resources. Opponents frequently wield this criticism against charters when districts are facing deficits or declining enrollment; in effect, they deflect the conversation about how districts ought to right-size or make cuts by rallying anti-charter sentiments.

Do these shibboleths around charters hold up in Dayton?

Fordham commissioned economist Richard Stock of the Business Research Group at the University of Dayton to analyze student-level data from the Ohio Department of Education and track student movement among schools and across local school districts in Montgomery County from 2005-06 thru 2008-09.

When it comes to Dayton, his findings refute both theories:

  1. There is no evidence that student movement is driven by a decision to attend a better-performing school. In fact, according to the data analyzed by Stock, students who move from a low-rated school are more likely to move to a school with an equal or lower rating than would be expected if the students were moving at random. 
  2. There is no evidence that district students are moving to charter schools at high rates. Instead, mobile students are moving outside of Montgomery County or disappearing from the system altogether. Over the last four years there has been little overall movement of students from district schools to charter schools. Further, there is no evidence that charter schools are gaining or losing higher-performing students – evidence that at least among the most mobile student population, charters aren’t “creaming” the best students. In Dayton, school movers actually have significantly lower reading scores than do non-school movers. The single greatest indicator of whether a child is likely to move from school-to-school is his or her reading score on the state achievement test. The lower the score, the more mobile the child.

These findings from Dayton dispel commonly touted notions from both charter advocates and foes, and point to another cause for concern: outstanding levels of mobility among disadvantaged kids that have an adverse impact on their educational outcomes. The findings also serve as a reminder of the need for more such data to test ideas about the impact of school choice, and to add concrete evidence to the rhetoric so that policy decisions can be well-informed.

See the Dayton Daily News’ coverage of this research here.

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