A Message to Charter School Proponents: Focus on the Right to Choose, Not Just the Statistics

Samantha Blackman
National Policy

Conservative and libertarian-leaning individuals consistently argue in favor of charter schools. Unfortunately, the data surrounding charter schools are often inconclusive due to limitations of time and data consistency. As a result, the main focus for charter school proponents should center on parents’ right to choose a school for their children, not just statistical analysis.

Although they are both publicly funded, charter schools are operated independently, outside of the purview of teachers unions. This allows for more flexibility within the school in terms of curriculum, the structure of school day and year, student discipline, and teacher accountability. Charter schools are open to the public in 43 U.S. states as well as Washington D.C., and if there are more applicants than seats for a certain charter school, admissions are often conducted through a lottery. Since 2018 the number of charter schools has grown steadily, adding about 300 to 400 schools per year. Though charter schools comprise a relatively small portion of schools in the U.S, they have played a vital role in the education policy discussion for the past 20 years, as proponents claim that offering school choice and increasing competition improves systemwide achievement.  

In order to demonstrate school effectiveness, many researchers rely on test scores. Although students from charter schools may have higher test scores, it is fair to question whether that is the result of a student’s individual aptitude, a charter school’s educational techniques, or the student’s family (given that arguably only education-focused families enter charter school lotteries).  

To overcome this obstacle, researchers will conduct “lottery studies,” which compare students who were offered a seat with those who were not offered a seat at a charter school. In this scenario, the evaluation of charter school effectiveness is free from selection bias, and researchers can conclude that a student’s performance is due to the charter school and not the individual characteristics of a student. On the other hand, the lottery study only evaluates charter school applicants and may not generalize to the larger group of students. Also, it is only possible to perform this study in an “oversubscribed” charter school, where a lottery is necessary for enrollment. 

Overall, researchers have found no difference between students’ average test scores from charter schools and traditional public schools. However, that finding reflects the combined performance of all students in each type of school, “without consideration of vast differences in who attends the schools and where they are located.” With that being said, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) analyzed charter school results throughout many U.S. states and regions, comparing charter students with their demographic likeness at traditional public schools. In 2015 CREDO analyzed 41 urban areas and discovered considerable positive results for Black and Hispanic charter school students. CREDO converts their results in “days of learning” gained or lost each year, and found that “Black students in poverty gained 59 days of math and 44 days of reading; Hispanic English-language learners gained 71 days of math and 79 days of reading.” Another national study by the federal Institute of Education Sciences (IES) discovered that although “no statistically significant differences in student achievement between lottery losers and lottery winners,” the most successful schools were those serving low-income and low-achieving students in urban areas. 

A common theme between the urban charter schools is their “no excuses” philosophy. “No excuses schools emphasize high expectations for both academics and behavior, longer school days and years, and frequent observations of teachers to give feedback, tutoring, and date-driven instruction that uses instruction to frequently update teachers,” says Sarah Cohodes from Princeton University. Attending the Promise Academy in the Harlem Children’s Zone, a no-excuses charter school in New York City, showed an increase of on-time high school graduation and college enrollment and decreased teen pregnancy for young women, and a decreased incarceration for men. Another interesting study was done in New York City, where researchers tested to see if the no-excuses approach related to charter school success. They found that their formal and relatively strict practices such as “intensive teacher observation and training, data-driven instruction, increased instructional time, intensive tutoring, and a culture of high expectations” positively correlated with better charter school effectiveness. Nevertheless, the resource inputs like student-teacher ratios and per-pupil-spending had no impact on charter school effectiveness. 

Beyond test scores, charter schools can also be evaluated using their college enrollment and graduation rates, as well as their eventual annual income. Students who went to a charter school in Chicago, Georgia, and Florida all saw an increase in percentage points for attending a four-year college, plus an increase in percentage points for remaining enrolled in college. In Chicago, for example, attending a charter school was associated with an 18.9 percentage point increase in enrolling in a four-year college and an 8.4 percentage point increase in remaining enrolled in college after four semesters. On the other hand, a study of charter schools in Texas found that while there may be a small increase in college enrollment, it is followed by a slight decrease in adult income. Also, “a recent national lottery study of 31 charter middle schools (including only three serving predominantly low-income students) found no effect on a student’s likelihood of attending or graduating college.” In terms of annual earnings specifically, a study found that in Florida attending a charter high school is associated with an approximately $2,350 increase in annual earnings. At the same time, they discovered that attending a charter school in Texas for one year was associated with “a decrease in average annual earnings from age 24 to age 26 of about $100–$200” for students who went to a regular (not no excuses) charter school. 

In some areas, charter schools have proven to positively affect the surrounding traditional public schools. The Fordham Institute explains that “students at traditional public schools also experienced reductions in grade retention when co-located with or close to a charter,” and that exposure to nearby charter schools increased their attendance rates. They elaborated, expressing that the traditional public schools nearest to charter schools experienced enhanced perceptions of school cleanliness and safety, a more engaged parent and student body, and overall higher expectations for students. Also, since public schools do not lose funding for students that no longer attend that school, it could be that there is more money per student (PPE) as students move to neighboring charter schools. Additionally, due to the high demands of the charter schools, in urban areas specifically, with longer school days and years, there is less room for the typical risky teen behavior, thus decreasing teen pregnancy and incarceration rates. Schools are open during the late afternoons offering programs like tutoring services and offer math and English remedial courses over the weekend. The idea is that the more time students spend in school, working on their school work in a cooperative, safe environment, the less time they will have for harmful behaviors. 

In the end, while charter schools in urban areas may provide better results than a traditional public school, in other instances the results are not statistically significant. However, why should the issue of school choice be determined based on differences in test scores? The larger principle is who should our society entrust to decide which school a child attends – the state or a child’s parent(s)? The reason school choice must be permitted to expand is that while the definition of school quality may be debatable, a parent’s right to choose the preferred path for his/her child is not.

Samantha Blackman

Hi! My name is Samantha Blackman and I am a senior in high school in New York City. I am interested in many aspects of public policy, particularly with respect to education and equality of opportunity. I have been actively involved in tutoring students from disadvantaged areas for several years, and enjoy playing tennis in my spare time.