Do Connecticut’s privately-managed charter schools outperform local public school districts?

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A few weeks ago, attorney Wendy Lecker asked me in an interview for the Stamford Advocate, “Do Connecticut charter schools outperform district schools?” My answer was, “Not exactly”.

As my Choice Watch report (Cotto & Feder, 2014) demonstrated, charter schools in Connecticut tend to serve a relatively more advantaged group of (mostly) Black and Latinx children including fewer children with disabilities, emerging bilingual children, and children eligible for free and reduced priced meals compared to the students in local public schools in the same cities as the charter schools. As a result, comparing the test results of charter schools with local public schools is like comparing “apples to oranges” because they often serve very different groups of children.

However, using a simple scatterplot chart, it is fairly easy to show that charter schools’ mean test results are not overwhelmingly better when compared with public school districts that have similarly-situated students in terms of a rough income indicator. Other scholars, such as Bruce Baker (2012) at Rutgers University, have constructed scatterplots of income vs. 7th grade math test results to demonstrate similar observations about charter and public schools.

For example, below I constructed an interactive scatterplot that compares 6th grade average scale scores on the CMT reading (2012) versus percentage of children eligible for free and reduced priced meals (FRPM) at the district level (Google sheet data here). This scatterplot data visualization has three major data points. First, each public district and charter school is positioned by the the overall percent FRPM (x-axis). Second, each district is positioned on the y-axis by its mean scale score on 6th grade CMT reading. Third, the size of the dots correspond to the percentage of emerging bilingual children (crudely labeled as “English Language Learners” by the State).

You can scroll over the dots to see the public school district or charter school name and their demographics and test data. Public school districts are in blue dots and charter schools are in red dots. By placing these data points on a scatterplot, we can more easily compare the average test results of districts and charter schools that are similar in terms of district-wide free and reduced meal eligibility. (See the end for notes on limitations of this data and method.)

Source: CT State Department of Education, 2015.

So what does this scatterplot show? Here are some observations:

  • There is a strong negative linear relationship (r= -.869) between this rough income indicator (eligibility for free and reduced priced meals) and average scale score on 6th grade CMT reading. (i.e. as free and reduced priced meal eligibility increases, average reading scores decrease)
  • When compared to similar districts by income, some (4) charter schools appear to have higher than average test results, some (4) have lower than average test results, and some (4) are right in the middle of the pack, or near the average.
  • If charter schools (red dots) had overwhelmingly higher test results, then we would expect more of their average scores to be above the majority of blue dots at their % FRPM level.

Want a closer look?

This second scatterplot chart only compares charter schools with the public school districts where they are located. The same pattern appears.

For example, Bridgeport Public Schools enrolled children that were 99% eligible for FRPM and 12.6% emerging bilingual (ELL). By comparison, all Bridgeport charter schools had higher average scale scores in reading, but lower rates of children eligible for free and reduced priced meals (68-85%) and emerging bilingual students (0-4%). There are exceptions, of course, such as Amistad Academy, which often appears comparable to New Haven Public Schools in terms of %FRPM, %ELL, and higher in average scale score.

And there are examples on the other end of the spectrum. The hypersegregated Stamford charter schools contain larger proportions of Black and Latinx students, those eligible for free/reduced price meals, and those with disabilities compared to the local Stamford public school district. They also appear to be outliers in terms of having very low average scale scores.

Source: CT State Department of Education, 2015.

This test result (“performance”) question is important because it is at the center of claims made about charter schools in Connecticut. The claim that charter schools achieve superior test results as a result of effort, choice, accountability, educational program, governance structure, or some other reason, is frequently cited by charter school lobbyists at the legislature and the CT State Department of Education. 

The simple claim hinges on a statement like this one from a presentation on charter schools by the CT SDE: “Of the 14 charter schools that administered the spring 2013 Connecticut Mastery Test, 12 schools (or 86%) outperformed their host district with their overall SPI.” (CT SDE, 2015) With this statistic, we are left to conclude (or told by the charter school lobby) that charter schools are supposedly excelling compared to local public schools.

The CT SDE presentation (below) offers similar statistics and a chart highlighting some demographics of charter schools versus “alliance” and all other districts, but it does not caution the reader these characteristics could impact test results and comparisons. What the CT SDE and charter school lobbyists are not explicitly telling you in these claims is that charter schools often serve a relatively more advantaged group of Black and Latinx children compared to the local public schools where they are located and these children are likely to do relatively better on standardized tests because standardized tests favor more advantaged groups of people. Therefore, it is not a fair comparison to directly compare charter schools test results to those in local public school districts without some sort of modification (e.g. compare districts similar in income levels and/or other characteristics).

Charter Renewal Process, SBE Overview | April 6, 2015

Screen Shot 2016-12-27 at 9.42.55 PMSource: CT State Department of Education, 2015.

The State is comparing “apples (public schools) to oranges (charter schools)” on test results, despite knowing (it’s their data!) that the massive demographic differences that make these simple comparisons very misleading. To be sure, the CT SDE assists in making these same simplistic comparisons of test results between urban and suburban schools districts as well. This type of misleading comparison of test results persists and is now baked into the CT State Department of Education policy on reviewing and renewing charter schools.

All of this is meant to say that using blunt comparisons of test results does not prove that charter schools or public schools are any better or worse than each other in terms of academic performance, or any other characteristic. Instead, I am arguing that comparisons of test results must account for often massive demographic differences. This was a major recommendation of the Choice Watch (2014) report. I would also add, as I’ve written elsewhere, that school performance should be thought of in broader terms than standardized tests. Simple comparisons of standardized test results will always favor schools with barriers to entry and participation (e.g. charter, magnet, vocational technical schools) and advantaged districts where families must buy or rent homes to attend local schools (affluent, suburban).

So when somebody asks the question, “Do Connecticut charter schools outperform public school districts?”, how will you answer?


Notes: 1. There are many other and better ways of analyzing this question about charter and public schools. My observations above are based on scatterplot charts that crudely “account” for income (FRPM). 2. The data above comes from 2012, the most recent data in which average scale score on State tests can be compared to other demographic information. 3. Finally, the %FRPM applies to all grades in the district, while the average scale score applies to all students in a district in the 6th grade taking the standard version of the test. The State does not share %FRPM data at the grade level. 4. Average scale scores are a better measure of central tendency compared to percent of students at proficient or goal because scale scores do not lump students status levels at arbitrary cut points.








Book review of Delmont, Why Busing Failed

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Book review manuscript accepted for publication:

Robert Cotto Jr. and Jack Dougherty, “Review of ‘Why Busing Failed’ by Matthew Delmont,” History of Education Quarterly 57, no. 1 (January 2017). Text copyrighted by History of Education Society and shared here under terms of the contributor agreement.

Matthew F. Delmont. Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016. 304 pp. Paperback, $29.95. Companion website with multimedia sources,

Book cover from UC Press
Book cover from UC Press

Matthew Delmont’s insightful book challenges us to rethink the history of “busing,” a word he intentionally places in quotation marks to emphasize its rise as a rhetorical strategy. Prior to the 1954 Brown decision, riding the school bus had been a white privilege in the rural South, particularly as it passed by (and sometimes splashed mud on) black children who walked the road to segregated schools. But as the school integration movement headed to the North and West in the 1960s and 1970s, white parents and politicians resisted by reframing their objections as a crisis over “busing” and “neighborhood schools.” In this way, whites advanced their own agendas and pushed black students’ moral and legal claims off the political stage, while avoiding explicitly racist language. The national news media was complicit in this rhetorical shift, he argues. As school desegregation battles moved from the Jim Crow South to northern and western states, big-city newspapers and television networks covered these events with less moral clarity, and sometimes open hostility, in their own backyards. Trained in American Studies, Delmont argues that we cannot comprehend this period solely through policy debates and courtroom proceedings. In addition, we must focus on local anti-integration protests, and the national politics and televised nightly news broadcasts that elevated their cause, to understand the rise of the busing narrative and its broader consequences.

In this wide-ranging study, chapters flow back and forth between two levels of analysis. The book opens with local battles over school integration (in New York City and Chicago, and later in Boston and Pontiac, Michigan) and expands to incorporate national politics and media coverage (primarily in Washington, DC, big-city newspapers, and the three major television news networks at that time: NBC, CBS, and ABC). The first chapter, on New York City, begins with the 1964 black and Puerto Rican school boycott for a desegregation plan, followed by the white parent protest against busing. Delmont skillfully demonstrates how this school boycott and counterprotest led to a dilemma for northern politicians just as Congress began debate on the Civil Rights Act. Northern members of Congress were content with desegregation in the South, but explicitly sought to protect their states from any required busing to correct racial imbalance. Delmont keenly points out that the southern members of Congress highlighted white resistance to busing in New York City to make their point against desegregation in the South and northern hypocrisy on racial segregation in general. In this chapter, New York City, whose school districts contained the largest black student population in the country, is centered in the national discourse on desegregation. Nevertheless, as Delmont reminds the reader, the media minimized the mass demands of black and Puerto Rican activists for school desegregation, while a minor white parent protest was elevated and used as evidence that busing was simply unreasonable.

The second chapter revisits Chicago’s pivotal clash with federal officials over desegregation in 1965. Activists filed a complaint with the US Office of Education claiming that Chicago Public Schools was in violation of the Civil Rights Act with regard to racial discrimination and segregation. For a brief time, the federal government agreed with the complaint and withheld $30 million in funding from the district. But, under pressure from Chicago’s Mayor Daley, President Johnson’s administration relented and eventually released the funds. The clash was pivotal because it signaled the collapse of any possible federal enforcement of desegregation outside of the southern states—news that circulated nationally.

The third city, Boston, is the culminating northern location where substantial black civil rights activism became overshadowed by white resistance to busing. Black protest against segregation and grassroots actions such as Operation Exodus led to the passage of the Massachusetts Racial Imbalance Act in 1965. In response, the media elevated white resistance to busing and transformed Boston school committee member Louise Day Hicks into an antibusing icon. For years, Hicks “led a committee which for years had prioritized the preferences and expectations of white parents over the rights of black students” (pp. 84–85). Why Busing Failed stands in sharp contrast to J. Anthony Lukas’s well-known book on Boston, Common Ground (1985), which Delmont critiques for featuring three families who disliked busing and ignoring the local history of black activism for integrated schools.

Delmont spends the remainder of the book’s chapters examining the national discussion on desegregation, now framed as “busing.” Chapter 4 documents the bipartisan and national political opposition to school desegregation. Chapter 5 chronicles Richard Nixon’s “antibusing” presidency, particularly his television appearances on the subject. Chapter 6 analyzes how national television news covered antibusing activist Irene McCabe and her grassroots movement in Pontiac, Michigan. Chapter 7 focuses on the complexity of black opinions about school desegregation and common understanding of the busing frame as antiblack racial code. The book concludes with a review of television coverage of Boston’s busing crisis in 1974. Throughout these chapters, Delmont consistently reminds the reader how the media framed desegregation as busing and the importance of northern urban politics to this national discourse.

Delmont’s most significant contribution is his creative interpretation of how national television and print media framed busing “as the common-sense way to describe, debate, and oppose school desegregation” (p. 6). In addition to conventional archival and legal sources, he analyzed over ten thousand reports from white daily and black weekly newspapers, along with dozens of hours of television news archives, to explain how media economics and technology shaped news coverage. Moreover, Delmont exemplifies historical scholarship in the digital age by sharing selected video, photo, and documentary evidence, along with extensive excerpts from his book, on a companion website ( Pairing multimedia evidence with the narrative makes a more compelling argument than the book alone, for both scholars and students, and the book’s companion site is ideal for educational use, organized around the theme of “12 Ways to Teach ‘Busing’ Differently.” Educational historians also may be interested in Delmont’s companion site for his previous book, The Nicest Kids in Town (2012), which features video and images on civil rights struggles and youth culture regarding the 1950s American Bandstand television program ( Overall, Why Busing Failed is a must-read for historians and policy analysts of civil rights and school desegregation.

Robert Cotto Jr. and Jack Dougherty, Trinity College

Letters to the NAACP: Quality Education and Charter School Problems

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Today, the NAACP will hold a hearing down in New Haven, CT to discuss quality education and their recent resolution calling for a moratorium on new charter schools. The NAACP made an announcement about this meeting earlier this week. Due to the late notice and distance from Hartford, a number of parents told me they could not make it. But in the digital age, distance and last-minute hearings are not always a roadblock.

This morning, a parent sent me a note regarding her child’s difficult experience in a charter school. Her story is a counter-narrative to what the charter school industry and lobby tells us that (especially) Black and Latinx children need in education (e.g. “no excuses”, standardized test preparation, private management, limited teacher and student rights). You can read several counter-narratives below, which have not been edited or changed from their original format.

Do you have a charter school story that you want to share with the NAACP about quality public education and/or charter school problems, but could not make the meeting? You can share your story with me by posting a comment, sending me an e-mail (, or tagging me on Twitter (@robertcottojr).

Zaida Berrios, grandparent, Hartford, Connecticut. (Sent to NAACP and shared on Facebook on 12/3/2016)

AF Story 1 AF Story 2 AF Story 3 AF Story 4 AF Story 5 AF Story 6 AF Story 7

LaKeisha McFarland, parent, Hartford, CT (comment sent on 12/3/2016)

My name is LaKeisha
I had my daughter attend Achievement First School. I get a call out of the blue. After 8 at night. The Lady on the phone said my daughter, has been accepted. As parent. I’m excited, My daughter was attending SANDS SCHOOL, at that time, was having trouble doing her work in class. Due to other kids disruption of the class. I never fill out paperwork saying that, I applied for ACHIEVEMENT FIRST SCHOOL, At that time. I knew nothing about that school. I’m thinking it’s a Magnet School. Once my daughter got in, everything was smooth. I’m okay with wearing uniforms, shirt tucked in, brown or black belts. Only white or black sneakers. Daughter doing good at the school… Achievement First, we get her a pair of new sneakers, she’s doing so well in school now. Black with a little red in them. She can’t wear them. Now I’m upset, I keep my cool. Let it pass. Later on she been at the school for about couple years, at that time, I goes to visit. To see how my girl doing, I wasn’t allowed. I need an appointment. The lady was rude. Found out kids had to wear whit shirt, if in trouble, kids pissed on themselves, if not allowed to go to the bathroom, you stayed in one room all day, for something minor, like a dropped pencil, or not giving the teacher eye to eye. I can go on, wait! I must mention. My daughter was bullied, no one from that school, brought this to My attention, my daughter did, when she had a knife in her hand, said she was being bullied, I don’t talk about it. This memory take me to a dark side, I never want to see anyone child go through. Thank the man above. I did the best. Was to remove the my daughter from that School.

Jaclyn Pioli, parent advocate, Stamford, CT, (comment sent on 12/3/2016)


I am a parent advocate in Stamford, my name is Jaclyn Pioli. I have been investigating the DOMUS charter school program for over a year and I discovered your blogs along the way. I would be grateful for any help that you might be able to give me. I have discovered what I believe is incontrovertible evidence that the DOMUS charter school program as it is being run in Connecticut is benefitting its administrators and investors to the detriment of the children in its charge. I have found fundamental inconsistencies with the validity of the charter school renewal process with the state; specifically regarding test scores, and the supposed elimination of in school suspensions and use of “holding” rooms. Mike Dugan, who originally started the charter school in 1999 had an agreement then with former mayor Malloy that Stamford Public Schools would cover 100% of the teaching staff salaries. SPS has honored this agreement, blindly, as current board members and administration at central office had no idea of the agreement, nor what the money was being used for. Or so they claim. My calculations indicate that $16.5 million dollars over the last ten years has paid for non-certified teaching staff. A fact that may have come to light sooner had SPS audited the grant even once over the last 20 years. The documented outcomes attributed to the program clearly illustrate that year after year, these children are essentially warehoused at DOMUS facilities for a finite period of time before they are reintegrated into the Stamford Public School system, having made minimal growth at best. Once they are returned to SPS with their weaknesses uncorrected, they are ushered through the grades lubricated by all manner of sliding scales and ethically questionable scoring practices. This sordid state of affairs is bad enough. Factor in the salaries earned by the program administrators that climb well into the six figure range and you reveal yet another example of those with means enriching, or further enriching, themselves at the expense of those without. This is made doubly grotesque when one considers that every single dollar SPS is allotting to DOMUS programs, is no longer available for Public School students who desperately need the services that it could have helped secure them. Too, I believe that I have identified an incestuous circle of self interest that revolves from ex-Mayor Malloy, to Mike Duggan, to the Bridgewater hedge fund, to the Dalio foundation and finally SPS.

The systems flaws are being exploited by people who have no interest at all in these children who are depending on them. Children who desperately need all the help that they can get. I would like very much to do something about that, because it is upon their shoulders that our future as a nation rests.

Thank you very much,



Updated (with video): Got something to say about charter schools? NAACP Special Hearing on Charter Schools – New Haven, CT – Saturday, Dec. 3, 1 – 6 p.m.

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Update: The full video of the NAACP special hearing is here. (Source: W4 News, Also see parent letters regarding charter school issues to the NAACP Task Force on Quality Education.

In October, the NAACP (national conference) passed a resolution that called for a moratorium on privately-managed, publicly funded charter schools. The resolution was fairly moderate and listed the charter school policies that must change in order for any future NAACP support. This weekend, the NAACP will host the first in a series of national meetings about this resolution for a charter school moratorium.  The first meeting will be in New Haven, CT. (details below)

The fact that charter schools are racially segregated (mostly Black students), have punitive disciplinary policies, and siphon funds away from public schools to privately-managed charter schools were among the reasons for a charter school moratorium. (You can read more about why here.) In a press release, the NAACP stated:

We are calling for a moratorium on the expansion of the charter schools at least until such time as:
 (1) Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools
 (2) Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system
 (3) Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate and
 (4) Charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

In addition to this resolution, the NAACP created a National Task Force for Quality Education. This Task Force will hold a special hearing (one of many around the country) focusing on this resolution for a charter school moratorium on Saturday, December 3, 2016, from 1 – 6 p.m. in New Haven, CT at the Omni Hotel, 155 Temple Street. (directions here)

Sign-up happens at 1 p.m. and the hearing begins at 2 p.m. 3 minute speaking limit per person. You can read the full details in the flyer below. The meeting appears to be open to the public.


You can be sure, the charter school lobby that advocates for more privately-managed schools and funding for only those charter schools will be there.

Will public education advocates show up?

Want to learn more about charter schools in Connecticut? Here’s a little something to get started:

Letter to State Board of Education (public comment): Relay teacher training program – November 2, 2016

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Dear members of the State Board of Education,

Thank you for your service and the chance speak to this morning. My name is Robert Cotto, Jr. and I am a certified teacher in Connecticut, educational researcher, and resident of the City of Hartford. Based on the evidence and my experience, I have deep concerns about the Relay program proposal. I come today to ask that you reject the Relay proposal and explore new and existing alternatives to diversifying the teacher force.

Relay is an inferior teacher training program compared to existing university-based and alternative teacher certification programs. As a certified teacher, I can remember the hours of fieldwork, lesson planning, student-teaching, and reflection with mentor teachers and university professors that had decades of K-12 experience. This experience in MA allowed me to earn my CT teacher certification. Relay deviates wildly from the structure and guidance required of other programs in CT that educate and certify new teachers. Created by the charter school industry and venture capitalists, Relay places its students into classrooms before extensive preparation, provides online modules in place of coursework, and assigns a teacher partner to supplement this “on-the-job” training. Relay calls this inferior preparation “a graduate school” and says it is for the good of Black and Latino students. As Ken Zeichner and other scholars have noted, there is no rigorous evidence to suggest this approach as an improvement or innovation to teacher and public education. By comparison, imagine that another white entrepreneur offered Black and Latinx communities similarly trained novices for performing surgery in hospitals or practicing law in courthouses. The program would be called exactly what is: racial discrimination.

By delivering an inferior program, Relay exploits the hopes of prospective Black and Latinx educators. Despite the lack of program approval, the State Department of Education reports that Relay recruited 70 students for its program, 50 of whom are self-identified as people of color. These people are eager to enter the teacher profession and should be commended. Relay exploits that desire by selling a subpar training program as a “graduate school” despite lacking real professors, courses, accreditation, or even State approval as a school or program. The combination of limited training and placement into primarily charter schools with high teacher turnover nearly assures that Relay students will leave the teaching profession quickly. When this happens, Relay will not hold any responsibility since they are not accountable in the same ways as other teacher education programs in Connecticut. Instead, the Relay teachers and their students will be left to pay the debt for this ill-planned venture. This approach simply exacerbates the national and local trend of healthy numbers of Black and Latinx teachers entering, but quickly exiting the profession because of poor working conditions and compensation, and other forms of discrimination.

There are alternatives that the State could consider for diversifying the teaching force. The State could restore and expand its Alternative Route to Certification and Minority Teacher Incentive Programs. The latter offers grants to prospective teachers of color already in Connecticut teacher education programs. However, the Governor and Legislature cut these grants by about $50,000 and $80,000 this year respectively. The State Board could also use its authority to encourage efforts to diversify students and faculty in the existing teacher education pipeline and to ensure that approved programs respond and adapt to the needs of our diversifying K-12 student body. Finally, whatever intervention this Board takes, it must do so with actual evidence of the issues, concerns, and needs of Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native American educators and students rather than with the clever marketing and weak evidence provided by the charter school industry. Connecticut can and must do better for teachers of color. Please reject Relay.

Thank you,

Robert Cotto, Jr., Ed.M., M.A.

Member, Hartford Board of Education