Students attending charter schools run by for-profit organizations perform worse academically than their peers attending charters run by nonprofits, according to a study by one of the leading researchers on charter school performance.
The findings could have particular implications in Michigan, given the state has the largest percentage of charter schools run by for-profit companies in the nation.
The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University released a report last week that looks at charter school performance based on how the school is managed and how much improvement on standardized exams students are making.
Overall, the researchers found that charters that are part of a larger network of schools tend to have stronger improvement than independent charters that aren't part of a big network.
But CREDO's separate look at the profit nature of charters seems to be drawing the most interest. The report came out during the annual National Charter Schools Conference, which was held last week in Washington.
"Nonprofits have significantly stronger growth than for-profit (run) schools," James Woodworth, the lead analyst for the report, said during a media conference call Tuesday.
The difference was stronger in math than it was in reading.
The findings could fuel the already robust debate over for-profit run charter schools. The architects of charter schools in Michigan initially saw them as grassroots efforts by teachers, parents and others who would provide an alternative to the traditional public schools. But the charter sector in the state has been dominated by for-profit companies.
A Free Press investigation on Michigan's charter schools in 2014 found that nearly 80% of charters in the state had a for-profit company either running the school (61%) or providing other services, such as staffing (17%).
Michigan by far has the largest percentage of charter schools operated by a for-profit company. Nationwide, just 16% of schools are operated by for-profit companies, according to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.
Charter critics immediately pounced on the findings.
"When you let the market control education, profit wins and children lose," Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement shortly after the study became public. "The study is consistent with the poor performance of for-profit charters Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pushed in Michigan."
The CREDO study analyzed test score data from 2011-12 through 2014-15 in 24 states, New York City and Washington, D.C.
The report doesn't provide a state-by-state breakdown of how charters perform based on profit status. But one of the state's leading advocates of charters believes Michigan's for-profit run charters would buck the national trend.
And, said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter advocacy group, whether a school is run by a for-profit or a nonprofit "is irrelevant."
"What matters is how effective the organization is at managing schools," said Quisenberry, who questioned the way CREDO classified some charter school networks, saying some in Michigan were identified as being for-profit when they're actually nonprofit companies.
CREDO measures improvement in standard deviations — basically, how far above the mean the average student grew compared with demographically-similar peers. The for-profit run charters were below the mean in math, meaning they're losing ground. And while they were above the mean in reading, they were still below nonprofit-run charters.
The gains CREDO discovered, though, are too small to be compelling, said Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University professor who has done extensive research on charter schools.
"They exaggerate the significance of their findings," Miron said.
Still, Miron doesn't doubt the overall finding that the nonprofits are getting bigger gains. He's been involved in similar research in the past.
"We found the same thing," Miron said.
Part of the reason, Miron said, is that the nonprofit-run schools tend to be college preparatory academies with rigorous curriculum that don't serve all students.
"The reality is we need fixes that are going to serve all children," Miron said.
Contact Lori Higgins: 313-222-6651, email@example.com or @LoriAHiggins.
Detroit Free Press