Study Finds NYC Charters Don't Serve the City's Poorest

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New York City has long boasted of studies finding charter schools do a better job of educating low-income students than regular public schools. But a new study questions that data.

Bruce Baker, an associate professor at Rutgers' graduate school of education, said charters do serve the same proportion of children receiving free and reduced-price meals. But those two categories are lumped together when they're actually quite different, he said.

"The charters seem to have a larger share of the kids who are the less poor among the poor," he said.

Baker's study found 57 percent of the students at a typical charter school in New York City receive free lunch compared to 68 percent in the typical regular elementary school. Students who receive a free lunch are much closer to the poverty limit than those who qualify for reduced-price meals. 

Baker said that means charter students don't require as many resources as other public school students, so when you adjust for the difference in government funding they aren't really short-changed. The charters also have fewer English as a Second Language students, which was already known.

The study looked at data from 2006 to 2008. It relied on an Independent Budget Office report that found charters that have to pay their own rent get about $3000 less funding per pupil than students in other city schools. But New York City is unusual because it sites many charters in regular public school buildings. When that's taken into account, the IBO study found charters with free rent only get $315 less per student.

Baker's new study was published by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It also found some charters are so successful at private fundraising that they spend an extra $800 to $1500 per pupil each year in many cases. The New York Center for Autism charter gets much more philanthropy, enabling it to spend an extra $9,571 per pupil.

Given all of these discrepancies, Baker said he hopes his close examination of charter students will contribute to the debate over the privately managed but publicly funded schools. 

"We need to be looking more precisely at student characteristics. A blunt instrument like qualifying for free or reduced price lunch doesn't adequately characterize the family backgrounds of kids in low income neighborhoods," he said.