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Charter Drop-Outs

Boston study shows local charter schools shed low-achievers

By Alain Jehlen

It looks like many of Boston’s charter schools are “dropout factories.” That’s the conclusion of a new study by the Massachusetts Teachers Association based on public records.

Charter schools play a central role in U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s plans for turning around low-performing schools, but the MTA study suggests they are often part of the problem, not the solution.  

Duncan himself has said his goal is “not more charters, it’s good charters.” In an interview with NEA Today last spring, when asked about charter schools that select out the most challenging students, the Secretary’s reply was unequivocal: “If that’s going on, that’s not acceptable. Let me start with that… If schools are not doing the right thing, that would be a reason for that school to be shut down.” By that criterion, some of Boston’s most praised charter schools should not be open, the MTA study shows.

The study author is Kathleen Skinner, director of the union’s Center for Education Policy and Practice. One number captures her most important finding: There are only 49 percent as many seniors enrolled in Boston’s charter schools as there are freshmen.

Detailed charts in the report show, school by school and year by year, how students fall away and disappear from the rolls.  

Responding to the study in the Boston Globe, some charter school leaders essentially pleaded guilty to not helping low-achieving students, but said they don’t do it on purpose. “Unfortunately we have students who leave because they feel our academic standards are too high,” the newspaper quoted a charter school principal as saying.

Skinner notes that many Boston charter schools screen out students even before they sign up. To enroll their students at some schools, parents must come to meetings and agree to elaborate contracts spelling out their responsibilities, guaranteeing that only students with supportive families will come. 

Skinner also looked at suspension rates, since being suspended may lead a child to leave school. Looking at seven charter schools, she found that on average, 30 percent of students were penalized with out-of-school suspension at least once during the course of a year, compared with nine percent for Boston district schools.

An earlier Boston Globe investigation found that charter schools enroll many fewer English language learners and special education students than district public schools. Skinner went further, looking at the breakdown within the broad special education category. Nine out of 10 special needs students in charter schools, she found, have only mild disabilities, compared with one-third of special education students in district schools.

The report was issued in advance of a public hearing before the Massachusetts legislature on Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to double the number of charter school seats in districts that have low scores on the Massachusetts state test.

MTA President Anne Wass said charter schools were first established to be laboratories of experimentation, but “over time, they have changed into something else—essentially a state-managed system of publicly funded private schools.

“Students who are not meeting a school’s academic and behavior standards are being sent back to district schools or to the streets, and then exaggerated claims of success are being made based on the small number of students who remain.

“U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently described as ‘dropout factories’ schools where two out of five of their freshmen are not enrolled at the start of their senior year,” Wass continued. “By that standard, Boston’s charter high schools are among the worst ‘dropout factories’ in the state.”



Download Report on Enrollment Practices of Massachusetts Charter Schools