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WMU study shows much praised KIPP charters not for everyone

by Mark Schwerin

April 5, 2011 | WMU News

KALAMAZOO--A new report released today by researchers in the College of Education and Human Development at Western Michigan University and Teachers College at Columbia University raises serious questions about the high attrition rate of students across the country who attend the nationally heralded charter school program known as KIPP--the Knowledge is Power Program.

The report also suggests that KIPP, which has been widely praised by both the Bush and Obama administrations as a model for a successful charter school and viewed by some as a possible management option for failing Detroit schools, relies too heavily on a large infusion of dollars from private sources. That reliance on outside funding, the authors note, may make it hard to sustain the program over time.

KIPP received favorable publicity recently after being heavily featured in the documentary "Waiting for Superman." The program, which operates 99 schools in 20 states and serves 27,000 students, is renowned for its "no excuses method," by which generally high-poverty students attend school for a longer day and year than local public school students in more traditional school settings. According to the KIPP Web site, "more than 90 percent of KIPP middle school students have gone on to college-preparatory high schools, and over 85 percent of KIPP alumni have gone on to college."

However, while most of the publicity about KIPP has focused on the number of students going on to college, little attention has looked at the kinds of students entering KIPP schools, the characteristics of the large number of students that leave KIPP and the number of dollars KIPP receives from school districts, states and the federal government, as well as private sources.

Titled "What Makes KIPP Work? A Study of Student Characteristics, Attrition and School Finance," the report finds:

"I am surprised that KIPP gets more money from the federal government especially because KIPP has limited special education services which are subsidized with federal dollars," says Dr. Gary Miron, WMU professor of educational leadership, research and technology and the report's lead researcher. "Charter schools traditionally receive less money because they provide fewer services like special education and vocational training. That is why it's surprising that KIPP receives more money than all of our comparison groups from public sources."

None of the 12 KIPP districts reported any private revenues in the national school district finance dataset; however, a separate analysis of these districts' 990 tax forms for 2008 revealed large sums of private contributions. Per-pupil contributions for the 11 KIPP districts that the researchers included in this analysis equaled an average of $5,760, much more than the $1,000 to $1,500 additional per-pupil revenue KIPP estimates is necessary for their program. Two KIPP districts or groups received more than $10,000 per pupil in private revenues.

Combining public and private sources of revenue, KIPP received, on average, $18,491 per pupil in 2007-08. This is $6,500 more per-pupil than what KIPP's local school districts received in revenues. Some KIPP students have as much as a $10,000 advantage over their peers in traditional public schools.

Jessica Urschel, a graduate student and co-author of the study, notes, "An interesting finding that appeared from our analysis of expenditures revealed that KIPP spends less on instructional costs, even while it has a longer school year and receives more money per pupil than local districts."

The study does not question the body of evidence on student achievement gains made in KIPP schools. In fact, it is the view of the report's authors that KIPP's claims of improving test results of the students who persist in its schools faster than traditional public schools are supported by rigorous and well-documented studies.

"KIPP has been lauded as a successful private operator of public schools," Miron says, "but this report shows that KIPP is not able to serve the broad spectrum of public school students with the money that is currently available for public schools."

Adds Miron, "If KIPP wishes to maintain its status as an exemplar of private management of public schools, rather than a new effort to privatize public schools, it will need to convince policymakers and the public that it intends to recruit and serve a wider range of students and that it will be able to do so with sustainable levels of funding comparable to what traditional public schools receive."

The study has received considerable national attention and, during the first day after its release, the study was prominently reported by The New York Times, Washington Post, Bloomberg and Education Week. Nick Saxton, a graduate student in evaluation, measurement and research and a co-author of the report, says, "It's exciting to be involved in evaluating programs of national interest and also to see how our work can influence national policy."

Copies of the report are available from the Teachers College National Center for the Study of Privatization and Education.

For more information on this and other studies, visit the Study Group on Education Management Organizations online. For an interview with Miron, call (269) 599-7965 or email