Spurred by the prospect of being awarded millions in Race to the Top grants, several states have removed or raised caps on the number of charter schools they will allow to be authorized. And financial support for charters has been flowing in from various foundations and corporations—including most notably a recent $325 million commitment from JPMorgan Chase.
But are charters outperforming traditional public schools sufficiently to warrant this priority being placed on them? And where charters are succeeding, do we know enough about the reasons why to justify this significant expansion?
Educators and policymakers who want to learn more about the facts can find a good resource in the recent Center for Public Education study, Charter Schools: Finding Out the Facts (available at www.centerforpubliceducation.org), which examines the most sound research to date. The results may surprise you.
As it turns out, research shows that charter schools do not justify the level of promotion and support they are receiving. A 2009 CREDO study (Center for Research on Education Outcomes) from Stanford University found that just 17 percent of charters outperformed traditional public schools, while 46 percent performed the same and 37 percent did worse. In other words, 83 percent of charters were no better or worse than traditional public schools.
Since the methodologically sound CREDO study involved 15 states and the District of Columbia—representing 70 percent of the national charter school enrollment—significant weight needs to be given to its findings. A number of other studies, however, involve success stories of specific schools or districts, such as the Hoxby study of New York City's charters. But those case studies do not fully isolate the reasons for success or whether the favorable conditions can be readily found or replicated elsewhere. Others look at factors outside test scores as their basis for claiming better comparisons with traditional public schools.
Many charters are established as alternatives to poorly performing schools in low-income communities with high enrollments of African-American or Hispanic students, but it's important to note that nationally their performance is mixed in this area. According to the CREDO study, in several states with large Hispanic enrollments, such as Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, students from this charter group underperform in relation to comparable traditional public schools.
The Authorization Process
How charter schools are authorized can also influence their success. For example, in states that allow multiple agencies to do the chartering, results tend to be weaker—presumably because some charter schools can shop for authorizers that give the least scrutiny to applications and operations. Other factors that influence success include accountability and oversight requirements for student performance, the school's financial health, the charter's duration and the renewal process.
A significant question is whether the school board should be the sole chartering agency. No major studies exist on this specific point, but intuitively it seems that when the local school board has authority over chartering and oversight, both the design and accountability are more likely to be more responsive to the community and the school's real-life function than, say, the state or a university. Skeptics will argue that school boards won't do the chartering, but the National Association of Charter School Authorities found they are the number one chartering agency, having authorized 55 percent of the nation's charter schools.
The Impact on Traditional Schools
As the U.S. Department of Education and states move forward to promote charters, other issues should be researched, including whether expanding programs within districts will have any deleterious effect on the operation and funding of traditional public schools.
Overall, given the mixed performance of charters, the unknowns about their successes and failures, as well as their potential negative impact, it would seem that a better approach to the charter rush would be to provide adequate study and then, where successful elements are found, to promote their replication in traditional public schools.
Michael A. Resnick is associate executive director for advocacy and issues management for the National School Boards Association.