What’s Wrong with Charter Schools?

What’s wrong with charter schools?  Not much it appears from some new research that finds that charter school students’ scores are better than in traditional schools once the charter schools have been in operation a few years.  But that is why the Chicago Tribune’s report about charter schools as an issue for striking Chicago public school teachers is concerning.  It’s too bad that charters could be the source of disruption in the education of so many children, given the choice students and parents are making in favor of charter schools.  Chicago now has more than 50,000 students in charter schools, a doubling in enrollment from just five years ago.  It’s also too bad in light of what we are learning from the charter school experience.

Just published is a new analysis of the performance of charter schools.  Entitled, Twice Considered: Charter Schools and Student Achievement in Utah, it was published in Economics of Education Review.  Its authors, Yongmei Ni and Andrea K. Rorrer, explain why there have been inconsistent results coming from previous evaluations of the quality of charter schools.  Their study’s methodology is the key to clarifying some past ambiguities coming out of earlier research.  The study focuses on schools in only one state, Utah, it matches each charter school student with a traditional public school student on multiple variables, it compares students’ test score gains when they attended both traditional schools and charter schools, and it uses sophisticated models with student achievement as the outcome variable.

The focus is on student achievement – in math and language arts.  Where the study finds declines in students’ math scores at a charter school, the study also identifies that the decline with students’ scores occurs in the early years of a charter school’s operations.  The study finds that subsequent to the start-up period of a charter school, charter school students’ math scores are better than in traditional schools. The study’s authors state:

Starting from the fifth operational year, the trend is reversed. Students enrolling in charter schools with five and more years of experience obtain greater math gains than students attending TPSs (traditional public schools).

The study’s findings are generally supportive of the positive impact of a charter school on students’ achievement unless the charter school is in its earliest stages of operations.  However, state-level policies could be established that would provide closer scrutiny in the early years of a charter school along with external support that might ameliorate the decrement in students’ performance in the earliest years of the charter’s existence.

Although the authors argue for more research, there was one area of concern, and that was in the area of student mobility.  In most of the study’s models, transfers between traditional schools and charters had little effect on student achievement.  But there were relatively consistent negative impacts at the elementary school level on transfers from traditional public schools to charters.  The authors do point out that part of this effect may well come from the early stage of a charter school.

The study’s authors call for more research, but they also make clear that, even where there may be questions about achievement outcomes, a charter school’s particular mission may be better matched to the needs of a student.  And that match may make the charter the preferred choice.  Chicago students deserve the charter school option, and it’s too bad if availability of charter schools were limited in the future.