Are Charter Schools Effective?

The performance of charter schools has been a topic of much debate in education since the first charter school opened its doors in 1992. Typically, the loudest voices for or against charters have come from the education leaders and the schools themselves. Basically, those with the most to gain - or lose - seem to have the loudest opinions. Regardless, it's hard to ignore that charter schools have disrupted the status quo in K-12 education, and there's no sign of charter school growth slowing. It seems that people can't get enough of choice when it comes to their childrens' educations. 

So...What's a Charter School Anyway?

From the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools website: "Charter schools are unique public schools that are allowed the freedom to be more innovative while being held accountable for advancing student achievement. Because they are public schools, they are:

  • Open to all children
  • Do not charge tuition
  • Do not have special entrance requirements

To reiterate, charter schools are public schools. However, they aren't traditional public schools, which are typically part of a school district. Charter schools are not private schools; they don't charge tuition, and they are open to all children within specific boundaries. 

 

Performance of Charter Schools

How do charter schools compare to traditional public schools? The results are mixed. Research shows that charter schools make gains in urban areas with students who have historically been underserved by traditional public schools. Researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released results in 2015 from a study measuring the impact of charter schools in 41 urban areas (see U.S. News article). Charter schools outscored their traditional school peers in 26 of the 41 cities in math, and 23 of the 41 cities in reading. The study also compared results to previous studies and found that charter schools in urban areas are improving over time. 

The National Education Association (NEA), which has a vested interest in maintaining the traditional education model and teachers unions (and therefore also an interest in limiting competition and charter school growth) referenced the same study on the NEA website but had a different interpretation of the findings, pointing to the fact that when all students are accounted for - and not just in urban areas - charter school students lag behind their traditional school counterparts more often than not. 

There have been numerous other studies, editiorials and general commentary about the effectiveness of charter schools. The fact is, there are many ways and varying metrics to determine what makes a school successful or not. And state testing constantly changes to adapt to everchanging state and national standards. What does seem to be clear, however, is that charter school quality is improving. In fact, according to the same Stanford study, "the performance of charter schools relative to district schools improved in each year over the period for which researchers collected data." And if charter schools as a whole are improving, that increases the pressure on traditional schools to improve. That's a great thing for students, families, educators, and the taxpaying public, which deserves a maximized return on investment. 

 

Moving Away From the Status Quo

In reality, everyone gains from school choice, with the possible exception of teacher unions and those with an interest in maintaining the traditional way of business. Being assigned which school to attend, and limiting the free market in education, is a step backwards. And with the dramatic growth in charter schools over the past decade, it's fighting a losing cause to try to limit charter school growth now. The focus should be on shaping charter and traditional school quality, not on limiting new ideas, models, and schools. Ideally, the school choice movement would make all schools better, and the public would determine which schools stay in business and which don't by voting with their feet. This means charter schools that are low-performing, or that operate in areas with declining student populations, could (and should) be at risk of closing, as is the case with traditional public schools.

Are charter schools effective? The research says that some are and some aren't, which is the case with traditional schools. But that same research also shows marked improvement, which is great news for (almost) all.  

Mark Holley
Mark Holley
Mark is the co-founder of Method Schools and SmartFox and has been working in the marketing and finance areas of K-12 education for two decades. He holds a B.S. in Business from Utah Valley University and an MBA from Brigham Young University. In his spare time he’s usually on his mountain bike.
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Try to use a testimonial with specific claims about your organization, services, or products. Make sure it's a real quote that sounds real. Here are a few tips on writing great testimonials.
Eric Johnson
Director, Client Services
Try to use a testimonial with specific claims about your organization, services, or products. Make sure it's a real quote that sounds real. Here are a few tips on writing great testimonials.
Eric Johnson
Director, Client Services

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