University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Examining NWA Charter Schools Enrollment Trends

In The View from the OEP on February 5, 2020 at 2:04 pm

This month, open-enrollment charter schools throughout the state will hold public, random lotteries for students hoping to attend the schools in the 2020-21 school year.  Open-enrollment charter schools are public schools that are open to students regardless of their residentially-assigned traditional school district. Charter schools receive their charter from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which holds these schools accountable to certain standards in order to stay open. They are publicly-funded and free of tuition.

Northwest Arkansas is currently home to nine public open-enrollment charter schools, with plans to open a new charter school for the 2020-21 school year. These schools, which serve unique missions, are some of the most highly ranked schools in the State of Arkansas. While critics argue that public charter schools segregate based on race or academic ability, national evidence finds that these claims are highly context specific. In today’s blog (and associated Policy Brief and Arkansas Education Report) we present what conclusions can we draw about Northwest Arkansas charter schools based on enrollment trends in recent years.

Similar to our previous work examining charter school enrollment trends in Little Rock, we begin by examining traditional and charter enrollment trends by student demographics and end with analyzing the academic performance of students that switch between traditional and charter sectors.

Arkansas Arts Academy schools provide an arts-based approach to learning. Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy schools have a classical focus, including the Socratic method and instruction in Latin. Each of the four Haas Hall campuses emphasize preparation for higher education with a semester block schedule. LISA Academy offers a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) curriculum. Finally, Hope Academy, which will open for the 2020-21 school year, will focus on serving children who have experienced trauma.

Charter schools in Northwest Arkansas enrolled 2,581 students in 2017-18, which was just under 3% of the nearly 90,000 public school students in Benton and Washington counties. Figure 1 presents Northwest Arkansas charter school enrollment from 2007-08 through the 2017-18 school year.


The 2017-18 enrollment data presented in Table 1, shows that charter schools in Northwest Arkansas enroll a larger proportion of White, Asian, and multi-racial students, than the traditional public districts.  The charter schools enroll a smaller proportion of other ethnic groups, students eligible for free– and reduced-priced lunch, English learners, and students eligible for special education services.

NWA Charter 2

When we examine ten years of enrollment data, we see that all Northwest Arkansas schools are becoming increasingly racially/ ethnically diverse and that charter schools are growing more similar to district public schools in their race/ ethnicity demographic composition. In 2007-08, less than 35% of students enrolled in NWA traditional public schools and around 10% enrolled in NWA charter schools identified with a minority group. In 2017-18, over 40% of the traditional public school population and 30% of the charter school population identified as a minority race or ethnicity. The district-charter minority enrollment gap was nearly 25 percentage points in 2007-08, but had shrunk to just over 10 percentage points ten years later.

Between 2009-10 and 2016-17, approximately 50% of students enrolled in traditional public schools were FRL-eligible. In contrast, approximately 20% of students enrolled in public charter schools were FRL-eligible. Similar disparities persisted for EL students (around 20% of traditional public school students and 3% of charter students) and SPED students (around 6% traditional public school and 3% charter). These trends raise the question of why NWA charter schools have become more integrated based on race, but not for FRL, EL, and SPED students?

Public charter schools are often accused of “cream skimming” (enrolling higher proportions of high-performing students) and “cropping” (encouraging low-performing students to enroll elsewhere). Do we see evidence of this with Northwest Arkansas public charter schools? In an effort to answer this question, we examine the academic performance of students who switched between the traditional and charter school sectors.

Students who exit NWA traditional public schools to enroll in a NWA charter school are, on average, academically high performing.  They scored two-thirds of a standard deviation above the state average on state assessments, and one-third of a standard deviation above the school average of the school that they moved from. The traditional public schools that students are leaving to go to a charter are high performing schools as well. Almost 58% of students who exit NWA traditional public schools to enroll in a NWA charter school left a school with a Z score in the top third of all NWA public schools.

Students leaving NWA charter schools to enroll in a NWA traditional school are also academically high performing on average. They scored on third of a standard deviation above the state average on state assessments. They were average performers, however, for the charter school that they exited.  About 40% of the students exiting charters left a school in the top third of all NWA public schools in terms of student achievement.

Taken together, this evidence suggests that higher performing students are leaving traditional schools to attend charter schools.  We have no evidence WHY higher performing students are leaving traditional schools, but possible reasons might be that they are attached to curricular options, changes in peer groups, or smaller classes. On the other hand, we do not see evidence that the students exiting charter schools are being ‘pushed out’ for low academic performance as they are average academic performers compared to their peers at the charter school that they are exiting.

The charter sector in NWA has grown rapidly over the past ten years, but continues to serve a small proportion (3%) of all public school students in the area. The region has grown more racially and ethnically diverse in that time. Public charter schools have also grown more diverse, though they continue to enroll a smaller proportion of certain student populations. Here’s what we think are important steps moving forward:

  1. Continue to monitor differences in demographic enrollment trends by sector.  Charter schools should be reaching out to all communities to communicate the opportunity to enroll, and if particular groups are not expressing interest we should try to learn more about why.  Do they feel that they are not ‘the right kind of applicant’ or do they prefer the opportunities that they are given in the traditional public sector?
  2. Gain a better understanding of why FRL, EL, and SPED students enroll in charter schools at such low rates. These enrollment trends may be related to problems with practical solutions, such as transportation. It may be that the families of these students are satisfied with services provided at their residentially-assigned district public school. It may be that students are interested in attending but are not being selected in the random lotteries that charters must hold if oversubscribed. Understanding the reasons for these enrollment trends is essential to crafting policy-relevant solutions.
  3. Respond to market demands. NWA charter schools enroll only 3% of all public school students in Benton and Washington counties. However, many of the charter schools are oversubscribed with waiting lists of students not selected through random lotteries.  The interest in charters suggests many more students may be interested in enrolling in these schools. Traditional public schools should communicate with students and parents to determine if their needs are being met, and, if not, how they can better support their educational experience.





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