National report says charter school has high student attrition

A charter network that has two schools in Baltimore has a high level of student attrition and of private and public funding that have positioned it to be successful, according to a national report published Thursday.

The report on Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which opened its first school in Baltimore about a decade ago and recently reached a long-term deal to remain in the city for another 10 years, suggests that the national charter school network's high performance is a result of having advantages over its public school counterparts.

The study, which was published by Western Michigan University and jointly released with Columbia University, "What Makes KIPP Work: A study of student characteristics, attrition and school finance," based its conclusions on publicly available KIPP data measured against districtwide data. KIPP, founded by two Teach For America alumni in 1994, runs 99 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

The organization opened a middle school in Baltimore, KIPP Ujima Village Academy, in 2002 and an elementary school, KIPP Harmony Academy, in 2009. Both are among the highest-performing schools in the city.

In Baltimore, the Western Michigan report examined a group of students at KIPP Ujima from 2006 through 2009. Forty-two percent who started sixth grade had left the school by eighth grade.

Nationally, the report found, on average about 15 percent of students leave KIPP every year, compared with 3 percent in public schools. Moreover, between grades six and eight, about 30 percent of students drop off KIPP's rolls.

The majority of students who leave are African-American males, the report found, and the schools primarily serve African-American students.

The lead researcher, Gary Miron, called KIPP's attrition a "tremendous drop-off," concluding that he believes "their outcomes would change" without the attrition.

The study also concluded that KIPP's high performance, when compared to public schools, could be a result of serving significantly fewer special-education students and English language learners — two populations that are often less competitive academically and more expensive to educate.

Steve Mancini, a spokesman for KIPP, said the organization rejected the core conclusions in the report that the network's success is tied to the "creaming out of students."

KIPP schools do not have higher or lower levels of attrition compared to schools within their districts, Mancini said. He said the Western Michigan report relies on an apples-to-oranges comparison because the district attrition figures do not take into account students who transfer from school to school within a district.

However, he said KIPP schools serve communities with a transient population in impoverished areas. "We're schools of choice, and kids leave," he said.

Mancini said KIPP's analysis of the report's key conclusions showed "factual misrepresentations," based on incomplete and selective methodology, particularly in the area of funding.

The report's researchers found that in addition to receiving more public funding per pupil than its public school counterparts, KIPP also received $5,760 per pupil from private funding.

The number came from reviews of the organization's nonprofit filings from the Internal Revenue Service, but Mancini pointed out that the report based its conclusion on a group of 28 schools, though 56 were operating during 2007-2008, the years of study. If researchers had factored in all of the schools operating, the per-pupil expenditure would have dropped by about $2,000, Mancini said.

The report, which contrasts with recent studies on the highly lauded charter network, concluded that KIPP's program isn't a sustainable model to improve public education across the nation. KIPP received $50 million last year from the U.S. Department of Education to expand.

"Kids who persist at KIPP do well," Miron said. "But the question is, is KIPP lifting the public schools, or are they lifting the kids who have the support to persist?"