Study: Best charters don’t get most dollars

California’s best charter schools don’t get the most philanthropic dollars, concludes a study by Cato’s Andrew Coulson.

American Indian Public Charters‘ students score more than four standard deviations above the norm on the challenging California Standards Test, based on Coulson’s measure of effect size, yet the schools rank 21st in donor funding.

Oakland Charter Academies rank second in performance and 27th in funding, Wilder’s Foundation is third in achievement and 39th in funding and Rocketship Education is fourth in achievment and 10th in funding. All outperform Whitney High and Lowell High, district-run schools that select students based on high test scores, according to Coulson’s effect-size analysis.

Coulson also looked at the number of black and Hispanic students passing AP exams, excluding foreign languages:  “The correlations between charter networks’ AP performance and their grant funding are negative, though negligible in magnitude.”

Aspire Public Schools is the number one recipient of charter-school philanthropy in the state. It’s been around for a long time: Founder Don Shalvey, a former district superintendent, started the first charter school in the state. But Aspire ranks only 23rd among the state’s charters in student performance.

Philanthropists are replicating the charter schools with well-connected leaders, not necessarily those with the highest achievement, the study concludes.

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  1. The best way to assess a school’s performance is through value added. A simple achievement score tells you nothing about what the school contributed to a student’s performance. Student growth is what counts.

    I can’t speak for the other charter schools that the Cato institute describes as high performing, but the American Indian Public Charter schools are a joke. As its name implies, the school started out as a predominantly Native American school. Its student body is now predominantly Asian. Attrition is extremely high and low performers are pushed out.

  2. ^^Ray,

    A value-added approached would have been preferable, but, as I explain in the paper, there are no data available that would allow for a value added model to be used to answer the research question at issue. Fortunately, my findings are consistent with earlier research on individual charter networks that used value-added models with and without randomized assignment.

    As for your contention that American Indian pushes out low-performers, it doesn’t comport with what I know about the schools. If you have evidence to that effect, please share it. If not, you owe an apology to the AIPCS students and staff.

    –Andrew Coulson

  3. CarolineSF says:

    California Department of Education statistics give quite a clear idea of the rapidly changing demographics at AIPCS.

    Unfortunately, something is going haywire with the CDE database and it won’t give me any years earlier than 07-08. However, just the three subsequent available years are pretty revealing about American Indian Public Charter School. I’ll try to make a readable chart in this blog comment format.

    American Indian Public Charter School, Oakland

    09-10 08-09 07-09
    African-American 8.7% 13.4% 24.3%
    American Indian 0 <1% 0
    Asian 80.2% 67.5% 61.4%
    Latino 9.3% 14.0% 12.9%
    White <1% <1% 0

    In Oakland, African-American students tend to be (overall, on average) the lowest achievers, and Asian students tend to be (overall, on average) the highest achievers. So as you can see, just the changes over these three years show a striking shift at AIPCS, which was supposedly targeted at serving high-need American Indian and African-American students.

  4. CarolineSF says:

    And also, just one quick attrition snapshot:

    The class that finished 8th grade in 2011:

    6th grade, 08-09: 87 students
    7th grade, 09-10: 54 students
    8th grade, 10-11: 48 students
    So 44.8% of the students left the school between 6th grade and the beginning of 8th grade.

    IMPORTANT NOTE: these figures are for the BEGINNING of the school year (the “10-day count”). Publicly available data do not show how many students completed the 8th grade.

    Of course, this is a big-picture view of the number of students. More students presumably left and were replaced with new incoming students. But overall the cohort dropped by 44.8%.

  5. Roger Sweeny says:

    Are we falling into a casual racism here? AIPCS has a lot more “Asians” now and a lot fewer “African-Americans” and “Latinos” and we say, well, of course they’re doing better, those Asian are good students and those African-Americans and Latinos are bad students. Everyone knows that.

    I suppose someone who thinks that way could respond to me, “But it’s true on average, and I’m not saying it’s inherent, something in the genes. I’m just saying it’s a fact we have to deal with.” Yet momof4 gets called a race-baiter for saying similar things. Is it really any better when it comes from the left?

  6. The only parents who want their kids to go to AIPCS are HIGHLY compliant parents who also have HIGHLY compliant kids. If one of those features isn’t sufficiently present, the family won’t tolerate, or be tolerated, in that school.

    AIPCS II, the second middle school with even a higher Asian population than the original AIPCS school (in mid-East Oakland), is located near Oakland’s Chinatown district. It was opened because Ben Chavis knew he could tap into the parents of compliant, high performing Asian kids who attend Lincoln Elementary, a constantly high-scoring, high poverty, Blue Ribbon-winning Oakland public elementary school which is about 90% Asian.

    A Lincoln Elementary staff member explained to me that APCS II is preferred by parents who are too fearful of letting their children attend the local middle school, Westlake. They like AIPCS II because their children can continue to attend a high majority-Asian school.

    AIPCS is an example of a particularly powerful version of the usual charter school self-segregation.

  7. CarolineSF says:

    Roger Sweeny, it isn’t exactly some kind of outrageous racism to base a comment on the undeniable and universally understood facts that Asians tend, overall on average, to outperform all other ethnicities; and that African-Americans and Latinos tend, overall on average, to be lower academic achievers.

    All discussion anywhere of the achievement gap is based on that understanding.

    It’s difficult to believe that anyone who pays enough attention to education policy to follow this blog would be unaware of that.

    Maybe that’s more evident to us here in San Francisco than to individuals elsewhere. A court ruling, the Ho decision, that had a major impact on our district’s entire assignment system was based completely on the fact that Asian students tend to score higher on standardized tests. (Explanation upon request.)

  8. Roger Sweeny says:


    I agree that it is certainly true that you can divide the world into 4 groups and say that, on average, the members of one group do better in school than the members of another, and that you can rank the 4 groups this way.

    It just is bothering me more and more that so many of us act as if group membership is destiny, that of course we can generalize when damn it, it’s individual kids who are actually going to school.

    And anyone who thinks it’s okay to generalize here, I don’t want to hear any complaints about momof4.

  9. You see Roger, it’s only racism if it’s based on hate. If it’s a neat rationalization for incompetence then it’s hypocrisy. And cowardice. But not racism.

  10. Roger Sweeny says:


    Perhaps you were being ironic?

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (the first sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)

  11. California’s top preforming charter school, Bullis Charter School, was not included in the study. Parents contribute a lot of money to the school, but it doesn’t get a significant amount of money from foundations. I am not sure why it was not included.

  12. The LA times was able to get value added scores for both individual teachers and schools. I am not trying to be negative. This is a potentially interesting study, but it remains of limited usefulness without value added scores. If the LA Times was able to do this using publicly available information, then Coulson should be able to do this as well.

    As far as AIPC and accusations of pushing out low performers, the problem could be conclusively settled by the use of value added scores.

  13. CarolineSF says:

    LK, in general the schools discussed here serve low-income students. Bullis, located in wealthy Los Altos, serves a population that doesn’t need help nor foundation funds:

    0 free/reduced lunch
    1.5% English-language learners
    Almost entirely white and Asian (speaking of the convoluted discussion above)

    No, folks — discussing the achievement gap and the overall achievement of different demographic subgroups is not racist. It’s the basis for most of the national conversation about education policy.

    Discussing those issues does NOT disqualify anyone from calling out actual racism.

  14. Roger Sweeny says:


    Get rid of the darkies and you’ll have a better school. Bring in the Asians and you’ll have a better school. I’m glad to know that that is not racism.

  15. CarolineSF says:

    In that case, everyone who ever discussed the achievement gap is a racist, Roger Sweeny. “Darky” is an offensive and racist term. An open and thoughtful discussion of the achievement gap is not racist.

    I understand that you’re play-acting in an effort to distract from the fact that the statistics demolish Andrew Coulson’s point. That’s really kind of pointless and not an effective way to respond.

  16. Cardinal Fang says:

    Ah, Bullis. It’s not exactly a charter serving low-income students.

    Los Altos, California is a wealthy suburb next to Palo Alto, very near Stanford. Los Altos Hills, its western neighbor, is an even wealthier suburb. Los Altos Hills has such a low population that the towns share a school district, Los Altos School District. A few years ago, the school district, faced with declining enrollment, decided to close Bullis, which was then a public elementary school located in Los Altos Hills.

    Bullis parents objected, and some of them said, in public meetings, that they didn’t want their privileged darlings to have to consort with the hoi polloi of Los Altos. So the Bullis parents formed a charter school. They hoped the school district would rent back the Bullis buildings to them, but it didn’t.

    So, Bullis is a charter school in a very high income neighborhood, with very high income parents. No surprise, then, that the students do well. I’m sure the rich parents of Bullis students contribute time and money to the school, but I can’t imagine why any other philanthropist would think it a worthy use of her money.

  17. Roger Sweeny says:


    Yes, I am playacting but I am concerned about the casual racialism that I see–and at the double standards. But no, I’m not trying to distract attention from anything.

    So let me see if I am reading you correctly. “Darky” is an offensive and racist term that precludes my comment from being thoughtful. So let me change it to, “Get rid of the under-represented minorities and you’ll have a better school. Bring in the Asians and you’ll have a better school.” Not racist now?

  18. It just is bothering me more and more that so many of us act as if group membership is destiny, that of course we can generalize when damn it, it’s individual kids who are actually going to school.

    “Generalizing” isn’t the same thing as “group membership is destiny”.

    We can generalize about populations because of this thing called “statistics”. While it is theoretically possible that a group of low income African Americans and Hispanics can outperform a group of low income Asians, the likelihood is very, very low.

    It’s not racist to point this out, given that most people think that AIPC is still populated by URMs, when it is not.

    “Get rid of the under-represented minorities and you’ll have a better school. Bring in the Asians and you’ll have a better school.”

    She said nothing of “better”. In fact, she challenged the notion that the school was “better” (that is, had teachers who taught their students to achieve at a higher level) when in fact the population had changed to students who, on average, have a far higher ability level.

    None of this defines any individual. This is, after all, a discussion of schools, which are groups.

  19. Richard says:

    I consulted with AIPC a couple of years ago for Ben Chavis when they started their AP English program, and I even went up and spent a week during my vacation helping their teacher there build his curriculum, and to start AP vertical teaming throughout the school generally. Ben told me a week ago that his school currently has some of the very few students in all of Oakland who are passing the AP Calculus exams. I was not surprised. Every 10th grade AP World History student supposedly passed that exam last year.

    I was happy to help that relatively fledgling AIPC and its students (a few years ago they were mostly Latino, a few Asian, a very few African American – all poor). I have absolutely no faith in the regular Oakland public schools; it is because nobody has faith in those schools that there are even charter schools there to begin with. What is the track record of the regular Oakland Unified public middle and high schools at focused teaching towards a common school wide goal?

    Ben’s AIPC certainly is a tough school with a no-nonsense ethos and would not be right for everyone, but if you live in Oakland, are poor, and want a quality education it would be the best alternative, no matter your ethnicity. Let the rest dodge bullets and dysfunction at the regular Oakland public schools. There can be social mobility for those who are willing to work for it in Oakland. Flaws and all, I have more faith in Ben to make that possible compared to Superintendent Tony Smith of the Oakland Unified School District.

  20. Many of the above comments ignore the study they purport to critique. My study controls for student race/ethnicity as well as income, and it also controls for school-wide income as a peer effect. AIPCS has the highest achievement _within every one of the 8 separate race/income groups for which it has students_. Black and Hispanic students attending AIPCS not only outperform those in other charters and in the public schools by a massive margin, they outperform the state’s middle and upper income Asians and whites. Furthermore, low-income Asians at AIPCS outscore their peers at every other charter school network and the public schools by a wide margin (CDE reports no data for AIPCS middle/upper-income students because it has too few of them to report). In fact, every SES group at AIPCS outperforms every comparable group at Whitney and Lowell, which are academically selective elite public schools. The stellar achievement at AIPCS is thus not a race/income effect as several commenters mistakenly assume.

  21. CarolineSF says:

    But Andrew Coulson, you challenged a poster who said AIPCS is pushing out low performers.

    Though statistics can’t show that, they resoundingly, irrefutably, unarguably prove that by whatever mechanism, the statistically likely lowest-performing demographic subgroup has been almost entirely eliminated from the school and replaced by the statistically highest-performing demographic subgroup. In addition, the attrition is very high.

    I don’t have the wherewithal (as a volunteer) to recheck your claims about Lowell and Whitney, but your previous claims have not stood up to scrutiny, as we can see here, so those claims are not credible either.

    You have lost the argument. End your blustering.

  22. Mr. Coulson, I am not trying to win or lose some pointless argument. Without value added data it is impossible to know whether AIPCS is pushing out low achievers, though the attrition rate and extreme changes in demographics are suspicious.

    I believe that your study could be a potentially valuable contribution, however, unless we know that a school is actually increasing a student’s achievement, it is not possible to conclude that a school is effective. It is possible to calculate value added from publicly available information. In doing so, you would greatly increase the credibility of your study.

  23. I have no stake on either side here, but I did look up AIPCS’ total enrollment numbers (from 2005-2006 to 2008-2009) courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data.

    Here’s the thing: Between 2006 and 2009, AIPCS added two additional charters, increasing total enrollment from 196 students to 644. The number of black students attending all three schools increased slightly, from 52 to 69; but as a percentage of students, black students declined significantly, 27 percent to 11 percent. The number of Asian students increased from 68 to 263; as a percentage of students, they increased just slightly, from 35 percent to 41 percent.

    What is in evidence, as much as one can see from the base data, is that there isn’t any evidence of push-outs. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening; one would have to look at cohort data for each of the last four graduating classes by race/ethnicity over that period of time. But whatever the merits of Coulson’s study, there isn’t much evidence of push-outs.

  24. Note, too, that enrollment data by grade are not a good measure of how many students transfer out, particularly at a back-to-basics school like AIPCS. This type of school tends not to socially promote students–they actually have to learn the material to be promoted to the next grade. So to measure attrition, it would be necessary to have actual counts of both dropouts and of students who transfer from an AIPCS school to another school, which could then be compared to the average Oakland Public School District figures. I’m looking into the availability of such data.

    Separately, contrary to one commenter’s claim above, there is no statewide data source that allowed for value-added student-level assessment over time in California across subjects for all schools, through the 2010 school year–at least none that I’m aware of. The CST does not report individual student scores, so it can’t be used for a value-added assessment. If the commenter knows of a data source that does allow for value-added student-level comparisons over time, he is welcome to post a link to it.

    At any rate, as I’ve noted, my model has suitable controls and its findings are consistent with those of the randomized and non-randomized value-added studies. It is not “impossible” to learn from cross-sectional regression studies, it just takes appropriate care.

  25. Andrew, the reality is that if the school has changed from predominantly black/Hispanic to predominantly Asian, the attrition level for blacks must be enormous. I’m not questioning the achievement of the African Americans that remain. I’m questioning the selection bias that has them staying.

    Incidentally, STAR results say there are 74 black students, but far fewer actually tested:

    English: 8 total
    Geometry: 2
    Algebra II: 2
    Summative: 4
    WH: 2

    You get the idea. That’s a very small number of blacks, and far fewer than are enrolled. Is there something I’m missing?

  26. Dear Cal,

    I’m not sure I follow your reasoning. The fact that a school’s demographics have changed over time do not imply differential attrition of enrolled students. Two of the three AIPCS schools are middle schools, and those have only three grades. So if the new cohorts differ substantially in demographics from the older cohorts, the schoolwide demographics will change regardless of attrition, and they will change quite rapidly. This seems to be the main mechanism at work from what I can tell. The schools have become increasingly popular with Asian families, and so Asian students are making up progressively larger shares of enrollment as new cohorts enter. [And low income Asian students attending AIPCS schools score a massive 3.2 standard deviations above those statewide, across subjects and grades, so they have good reason to like the school] .

    The STAR reporting format can be pretty confusing at first. The “Total Enrollment” figure on the page you link to is not African American student enrollment, even though it is on a page of search results for African American students. It is actually the school’s total enrollment (all races/ethnicities combined). You can confirm that this is the case if you change your search to look for any of the other ethnic subgroup breakdowns. They will always report the same figure for “Total Enrollment” for the given year. These results pages do not report enrollment by subgroup, they only report number tested by subgroup. But, as you can see from the second of these three related fields, there were 74 students enrolled and all 74 were tested. That’s normal, since the CSTs are mandatory.

  27. CarolineSF says:

    AIPCS has been hailed as a solution for the most challenged students, African-American and American Indian. George W. Bush and every charter-promoting politician on down have visited and cheered it as the future of education.

    So what’s the deal with AIPCS’ losing appeal with African-American (and American Indian, not a huge demographic in OUSD) students, and becoming favored by a population that is overall on average not in need of educational remediation? I don’t think you can really be all that breezy and chipper about this transformation, Andrew Coulson. If AIPCS is a solution for African-American students, why are they flocking away from it instead of to it? If it’s a solution for the demographic subgroup that is already the highest-performing of all, why is it getting attention and praise?

  28. Andrew, after I posted, I considered the possibility that there were only 8 blacks in the school, and that the population was total. But I dismissed it because good lord, you wouldn’t be plugging AIPCS, an Oakland school, as a highly effective charter because it was getting bangup test scores with a bunch of Asians and 8 blacks and 18 Hispanics.

    And yet, that’s what you did. Holy cow. I’m amazed anyone is taking it seriously.

    The schools have become increasingly popular with Asian families, and so Asian students are making up progressively larger shares of enrollment as new cohorts enter.

    The school has 8 black students. It had 13 the year before and 8 the year before that. The school is not popular with black families, to use your phrase. Even the middle school is becoming increasingly Asian.

    As for your claim that it’s becoming popular with Asian families, well, duh. Oakland public schools are low performing because of their population (high populations of blacks and Hispanics, primarily low income). Asian families who can’t afford to live elsewhere are cocooning at AIPCS. If AIPCS weren’t there, they’d go find some other low income district where they could dominate and get the schools they want. Good for them.

    But all AIPCS has done is improve its test scores by enforcing a work and discipline ethic that, sadly, wouldn’t interest most of the at-risk Oakland population, so all they’re left with is high-achieving low income Asians who can’t afford to live somewhere else–and probably aren’t too unhappy at the utter lack of whites (they always worry that whites will corrupt their kids by showing them that the world won’t end if they ignore their parents once in a while).

    Teaching Asian kids ain’t all that difficult. I’m sure that Asian kids who can’t afford to live elsewhere are benefiting from AIPCS, and that’s great. I’m also happy that the limited number of blacks and Hispanics who choose to stay there for the same reasons–good discipline, good academics–are getting a much better education than Oakland’s public schools can offer them thanks to its mandate to educate AIPCS rejects (and the ones who didn’t want it in the first place).

    Oakland needs a place for high achieving kids to go, regardless of race. But that’s what AIPCS is–a place for the already high achieving. It’s not where low achieving blacks and Hispanics go to become high achievers.

  29. Cal writes:

    “It’s not where low achieving blacks and Hispanics go to become high achievers.”

    Low income Hispanics, who make up a significant share of enrollment at AIPCS schools, score a staggering 4.4 standard deviations above the statewide average, and substantially above the averages for their peers at Lowell and Gretchen Whitney, which are elite, academically selective institutions. After a very extensive investigation of the possibility that this could be accounted for by selection bias (multiple appendices are dedicated to that question) it became quite clear that it cannot.

    What this means is that there are no other charter school networks, and few if any schools of any kind, that raise these students to such stellar heights of achievement, and that this tremendous performance cannot be accounted for by differential appeal of AIPCS schools to families of students who were already high achieving.

    Rather than commenting any more on this thread, I’ll just encourage those interested in the evidence to read the study.

  30. CarolineSF says:

    I have a comment on the original topic of this post.

    Both AiPCS and Oakland Charter Academies were led for their most high-profile years by flamboyantly in-your-face, deliberately offensive and provocative figures who made news for their bad behavior. Former AICPC head Ben Chavis left a group of visiting Mills College graduate students appalled by his insulting behavior to them and his rude and lewd manner of speaking to his students, and they didn’t keep quiet about it. Oakland Charter Academies’ similar former leader, Jorge Lopez, was appointed to the California state Board of Ed and then quit suddenly before confirmation — likely because questions were starting to surface about curious real estate dealings involving both him and Chavis.

    It would seem like these are outliers in terms of getting funding — any rational funder would likely be wary.

    Meanwhile, Rocketship Education is new and experimental. Observers are watching to see if those sky-high APIs hold up and the student outcomes in other areas bear them out.

    I haven’t researched Wilder’s Foundation, so I’m not speaking for that. But with the other three, you have chosen some obvious outliers and held them up as examples supposedly showing that less money is a good thing. I question the soundness of choosing obvious outliers to use to demonstrate a point.

    And for all those who want to make sweeping success claims about miracle schools, it’s evident that there are a lot of asterisks on AIPCS. You might consider reserving it to use as an example for a more trusting and gullible and less informed and questioning audience than you have here.

  31. Roger Sweeny says:

    CarolineSF is exactly right about outlier status and how limited their significance is. Unfortunately, the ed business is full of that.

    There are some outlier teachers who can take an “inclusion” class (one with a wide range of preparation and motivation) and “differentiate instruction” (teach differently to different students) and make it all work. Most teachers can’t but inclusion and differentiated instruction are modern educational buzz words, things that we are all supposed to be striving for.

  32. Low income Hispanics, who make up a significant share of enrollment at AIPCS schools, score a staggering 4.4 standard deviations above the statewide average, and substantially above the averages for their peers at Lowell and Gretchen Whitney, which are elite, academically selective institutions

    I said “low achieving”, not “low income”. You do understand they aren’t synonymous, don’t you? I’ve noticed this a great deal among eduformers, that they instantly jump to “low income” when I say “low achieving”. Poor students aren’t all uniformly low achieving. That’s why poor whites outscore non-poor blacks (and tie non-poor Hispanics) on every academic metric there is. And while there are fewer high achieving low income blacks and Hispanics, they do exist.

    The low income blacks and Hispanics who stay at AIPCS are clearly high achieving. The problem is that you are pretending as if the low ACHIEVING Hispanics are staying there and becoming high ACHIEVING, when the attrition rate says that’s not so. Rather, high achieving blacks and Hispanics (who are also low income) are staying. You have no evidence to say it’s the school that improves them, rather than selection bias that keeps the strong students there. And the attrition rate suggests the latter.

    And in any case, the number of students is miniscule. Small sample size, anyone?

    I’m surprised that the Cato Institute didn’t think of these things.

    Sign me on to Caroline’s comments, too.