They’re touted as the salvation of K-12 education — and criticized as a threat to the viability of traditional public schools. Some studies say they have a positive impact on student achievement; others say their effect is generally negative.
When it comes to debating charter schools, everyone seems to have an opinion, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is making charter school expansion a key part of the Obama administration’s school reform efforts. But according to a new report from NSBA’s Center for Public Education, what we know about charter schools, their performance, and their role in the future of education is a lot less than we may think we do. And, despite all the debate over their effectiveness, and some dramatic growth in their numbers over the past decade, charters still serve just 3 percent of public school students.
“The debate over charter schools is disproportional to the impact charter schools have on students,” said CPE Policy Analyst Jim Hull. That is, “they are not the silver bullet that proponents sometimes make them out to be, but they do not appear to negatively impact public schools, as some critics claim.”
The report looks at key research to date on charter schools and draws the following conclusions:
- A majority of studies show that elementary school students in charter schools perform better on reading and math than their counterparts in traditional public schools.
- Conversely, at the high school level, students perform better in math and reading in regular public schools.
- Overall, while some charters do better, the majority do the same or worse than traditional public schools. A 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that one-fifth of charters (17 percent) performed significantly better in reading and math than regular public schools, and 37 percent performed significantly worse. The rest (46 percent) did neither better nor worse.
- Results vary from state to state. CPE said it would be helpful to compare state-by-state achievement data with data on charter school authorizers.
- There is no conclusive data on how various ethnic or racial groups perform in charters versus regular public schools.
If researchers are operating on incomplete evidence, the public is going on even less, according to CPE’s report. For example, “only 41 percent of voters even know that charter schools are in fact public schools.”
“The incomplete research base behind charters means that many states may be heading into a reform strategy without a clear understanding of how charter schools work best, or how they interact with traditional public schools,” the report said. “Charter schools need more research, oversight and true evaluation to fulfill their purpose of being laboratories that traditional public schools can learn from.”
Most charter schools are found in urban areas. The report noted one study that says that 89 percent of school districts “have no charter schools within their boundaries, perhaps in large measure because so many school districts are so very small.”
Charters enrolled just 3 percent of public school students in 2008; however, that number has grown dramatically in the past decade, the report said. “In 1999, there were 1,542 charter schools with 349,642 students. By 2008, there were 4,618 charter schools with 1,407,817 students,” the report said, quoting data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.