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Do Charters Work for ELLs?

Whether charter schools are effective in helping students learn English is under debate in Massachusetts, where the state Senate passed a bill in November, backed by Gov. Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, to change some low-performing public schools into charter schools as a way to improve students’ learning and performance.

The House was expected to take the measure up in January. Patrick has cited the failure of many ELLs in traditional public schools to meet state graduation requirements. But some other public officials and private organizations are questioning whether charter schools will help them do any better.

“There is no empirical basis to support the notion that charters are the cure,” stated a September 2009 issue brief from the Multicultural Education, Training & Advocacy (META), a national organization specializing in the educational rights of Hispanics and other linguistic minorities.

In the brief—“Charter Schools and English Language Learners in Massachusetts: Policy Push without the Data”—META maintained that charter schools in the state have not demonstrated that they educate ELLs better than regular public schools. It added that “for whatever reason,” most ELL students do not even attend charter schools.

It cited Boston, where approximately 20 percent of all students are ELLs, but ELL percentages at charter schools in 2008-2009 were no higher than 3.8 percent.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University has taken a different view on the effectiveness nationally of charters on ELLs. In a report released last June—“Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States” (including Massachusetts)—CREDO stated that “English Language Learners realize significantly better learning gains in charter schools” than in regular public schools.

But it cited a wide variance in the quality of the country’s several thousand charter schools overall and concluded that in the aggregate, students in charter schools do not fare as well academically as students in traditional public schools.