The bulk of research suggests that not only do students who choose to attend charter schools benefit academically but students who remain in traditional public schools also benefit when those schools have to compete with charters. Education is no exception to the general pattern that choice and competition improve outcomes.
The best way to determine how students fare in charter schools is to compare them to students who applied but were not admitted by lottery (which many charter schools are required to hold when oversubscribed). Studies based on lotteries allow the comparison of apples to apples, while other studies, unable to control fully for preexisting differences between the students who attend charters and traditional public schools, end up comparing apples to zebras.
The only lottery-based analyses released so far were conducted by Stanford University economist Caroline Hoxby. Examining New York City’s charter schools, she found that students admitted by lottery experienced significantly greater achievement than those who lost the lottery and were unable to attend charter schools. With Columbia University economist Jonah Rockoff, Hoxby conducted a lottery-based analysis of charter schools in Chicago and found the same thing. Students learn more when they can choose a charter school.
Competition from charter schools also spurs improvement in traditional public schools. Studies conducted in Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, and Texas—states where charters are numerous enough to challenge traditional public schools—found student achievement increases when traditional public schools are surrounded by more charter schools. When students have alternatives, schools can’t take them for granted.
Of course, there are good and bad charter schools, just as there is a mix of traditional public schools. The point is, charters give students more options to find schools that work effectively for them. And giving students those options motivates traditional public schools to be more effective for the students who remain.
The accumulated evidence to date does not support the claim that charter schools are better than traditional public schools. But that is not the question we should be asking.
Some charter schools appear to be quite good; others are undeniably bad. The same is true of traditional public schools. Test scores for charter schools overall are lower than those for traditional public schools.
In my book Spin Cycle: How Research Is Used in Policy Debates, I look at the wildly disparate claims that appear in the media. Some point to charter school gems and proclaim they render traditional public schools as obsolete as manual typewriters. Others highlight disturbing stories of charter schools that are amateurish or corrupt, of sudden closings leaving students in the lurch, of resegregation by race, ethnicity, religion, and class.
Disagreements about what the evidence shows often stem from different predictions about the future. Proponents say charter schools’ performance will improve as newly hatched schools get their programs adjusted and weak schools are weeded out. But it is also possible that charter schools will flag over time, as early leaders burn out, private funders get distracted by other causes, and small and intimate operations struggle with the challenges of sustainability and growth.
Charter schools qualify as an interesting development in U.S. education, and there is much we can learn from careful research and clear-headed analysis. Whether, overall and in the long term, they will make things better or worse will depend on the interplay of market factors and government actions yet to unfold.
Rather than pitting charter and public schools as sector vs. sector, we’ll do better to think of charters and traditional schools as components of a broad public education system, ultimately responsible for democratic processes and open to change and adaptation as we feel our way along toward better schooling and a better society for all.Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek.com Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.
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