A closer look at the Harvard charter school study making waves in Juneau

school bus in front of building
A school bus full of preschoolers, their parents, caregivers and advocates pulled up to the Capitol building on Monday to hand out Valentine’s Day cards to state legislators on Feb. 13, 2023. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

A Harvard study on charter schools is driving conversations at the state Capitol about ways to improve Alaska schools.

The study ranks charter schools in Alaska as the best in the nation. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has cited it repeatedly and called on lawmakers to expand the charter school system.

For the lead author of the study, Paul Peterson, director of Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, the results were unexpected.

“I have to say, I am surprised that Alaska came in number one,” Peterson said in a video interview in late January.

It was a surprise for several reasons. First of all, Alaska’s traditional neighborhood schools rank near the bottom in national comparisons.

And the finding doesn’t really fit in with some of the other top-ranked states. Other high-ranking states like Massachusetts, New York and Colorado tend to have highly educated populations clustered around universities and colleges, Peterson said.

“The odd state out really is Alaska,” Peterson said.

Why does Alaska perform so well? It’s hard to say, Peterson said – that wasn’t the focus of the study. 

“You’d have to do a sort of a case study of every state, and that was beyond our resources,” he said.

Instead, Peterson and coauthor Danish Shakeel set out to produce the first state-by-state ranking of charter schools in the U.S. using a test given to a representative sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in every state, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It’s often referred to as “The Nation’s Report Card.”

And while the researchers can’t say exactly why Alaska’s charter schools outperform those of other states, their data does indicate that the benefits of charter schools are widespread in Alaska. When just looking at charter school students on free and reduced-price lunch, Alaska’s still near the top, ranking third.

“I found that sort of interesting, that this was not sort of like, ‘OK, this is just a bunch of rich kids who are doing well,'” he said. “This is what we’re seeing for kids pretty much across the board.”

And there’s some data suggesting that nonwhite students perform especially well in Alaska charter schools. The data is limited – there was only enough data to isolate white students, not other racial or ethnic groups in Alaska – but among white students, Alaska came in third.

“So what’s pulling Alaska up to the top level seems to be the performance of the nonwhite students in Alaska compared to other parts of the country,” Peterson said.

Another key finding of the paper is that it matters who authorizes a charter school – basically, who allows a charter school to be created, whether it’s a school district, a university, or a state agency.

“Local school districts look pretty good. They’re sort of in the middle,” Peterson said. “But the ones that stand out, where students seem to be performing the best, are those where it’s a statewide agency.”

That’s because it’s the state’s job to make sure schools operate effectively, and they’ve been doing it a long time, Peterson said.

“And if you assign them the job doing the same thing for charter schools, probably they’re going to do a better job of it than some newcomer on the block,” Peterson said.

That’s been a topic of discussion at the Capitol. The leading House education bill, Senate Bill 140, would allow the Alaska Board of Education to directly authorize charter schools. As it stands, the state board has to wait for an application from a local school district or an appeal of a charter denied at the district level. 

But the study has some important limitations – first of all, it’s based on data collected between 2009 and 2018, and things might have changed since the data was collected, Peterson said.

“A lot has happened in the last five years,” he said. “Call it COVID. Call it closing schools. You know, it’s just a lot of things that have happened, so whether or not we would get the same ranking for charter schools in Alaska today is an open question.”

It’s also possible that there are some differences between Alaska’s students and those in other states that make it difficult to compare, Peterson said. There’s also the possibility that given Alaska’s low population and relatively small number of charter schools, the test may not have captured a sample that represents the whole state.

Whatever the implications, lawmakers will have a chance to dig deeper into the study soon. Peterson is due to testify to the House Education Committee on Feb. 7.

Additional reporting was contributed by Alaska Public Media’s Tim Rockey in Anchorage

Eric Stone covers state government, tracking the Alaska Legislature, state policy and its impact on all Alaskans. Reach him at estone@alaskapublic.org.

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