The biggest public school problem might be the brand

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Most people believe that charter and private schools are preferable alternatives to traditional public schools. This is evident in the palpable anxiety at school open houses, in overheard conversations at coffee shops, and humorless posts on parent blogs. And it comes across quite clearly in survey data. According to a recent Gallup poll, 78 percent of Americans believe that private schools provide a good or excellent education. Charter schools aren’t far behind, clocking in at 60 percent. And traditional public schools (where the vast majority of K-12 students are educated)? They come in dead last, with only 37 percent of respondents expressing confidence in their merits.

This wouldn’t be much of a story if the data on school performance supported these assumptions. Yet private schools are often outperformed by their public counterparts. Sure, private schools often have higher raw test scores. But they also tend to serve more privileged populations. So, when factors like income, race, and parental education are taken into account, private schools don’t appear to add as much value as one might assume they do.

Charter school performance also fails to match public perceptions. As research indicates, charter school quality varies dramatically, from state to state, and from school to school. And on the whole, charter performance is comparable to that of traditional public schools.

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