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Charter Schools Get Top Marks

Primary and secondary schools created via private funding and effort exceed conventional public schools in quality. Pro or con?

Pro: Charters Elevate Everyone

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.

Con: Too Soon to Praise Charters

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 Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek,, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments


I think we should be holding both charter and traditional schools to the same standards--and that both should prove that they're serving our children. I don't think it's too early to tell--I think we need to keep looking at data. Charter schools are definitely a component of a broad public education system, and because of this, they should be showing their data as well.


I agree with js that charter schools are a good idea as long as they are held to the same standards as public schools. It's important to have alternatives, particularly where the public schools aren't serving their students very well.


Charter schools are public schools and take the same state tests that other public schools do--and so their data is indeed public. Some districts publish the results on their Web sites, so it's really not hard to find.


The name "charter" does not make a school a great school. However, charter schools can and do provide an alternative to struggling public schools in many urban areas. If a place like New York City has 10 new charter schools and 7 are better than the local district, doesn't this still benefit students in New York City? The three underperforming charters should be closed for not being successful. The benefit of a charter vs. traditional public school is that charters can be closed for being underperforming, whereas the underperforming district school stays open forever and seemingly never changes.


The great thing about research is that it will support whatever position you want to take in any debate. I founded a charter school and support them as a concept but will acknowledge that you can find bad examples of charters. In my view, a better perspective to take is to think of them as a part of a system--as Professor Henig begins to suggest. These schools may in the short run address immediate needs for safe, good schools (as ours has) but might also elevate the overall system of education nationwide by presenting new ideas, innovations, etc. Evolution only comes through the introduction of change into the system.


CJ makes a good point regarding the use or interpretation of research. Or as Ford put it, "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." However, there are checks and balances in the academic world to ensure that quantitative data is produced and interpreted responsibly. It's called "peer review," and it ensures that studies published in journals meet at least a basic threshold test for quality. That way, even lay persons without research expertise can be confident that what they're reading is responsible research. Jay Greene and his fellow school-choice advocates completely avoid this peer review process and just publish their "research" on the Web. Why? Because they cook the books in favor of charter schools and their papers couldn't make it through peer review. Greene is an advocate, not a researcher. When Greene claims a consensus in the research that charters are superior, he is referring largely to his own work and his colleagues' work, not high-quality peer-reviewed research. Follow the money, folks. Greene and Co. are supported largely by conservative foundations with explicit pro-school-choice positions. Jeff Henig, on the other hand, is a highly respected researcher whose work is usually published in first-rate journals.

The consensus of the peer-reviewed literature thus far is that charter schools on the whole perform no better, and sometimes worse, than regular public schools. However, there are many outstanding charter schools that are making wonderful contributions to our educational system. Also, achievement need not be the primary indicator by which we judge charters. The heavy focus on achievement may actually detract from other goals like equity of choice or innovation.

Wise Gal

I honestly think that if competing with other schools helps our children get a better education, so be it. I have a 5-year-old son. I had him at 12, and he has a condition that makes it hard for him to learn well. If the public schools are competing with the charters, let it be. Maybe it will help my son.

John Cleek

The question is not whether charter public or traditional public schools are better. The question should be whether charter schools are serving the purpose for which they were originally conceived, which was to provide a venue for experimenting with educational methods and strategies not possible within the rigid structure of the traditional school.

Unfortunately, the majority of charter schools are not performing this experimental function. When they simply serve as an alternative to the traditional, some will perform well and some will not. As a university dean responsible for oversight of a dozen or more charter schools, I can tell you that about 60% performed reasonably well, about 10% performed exceptionally well (the ones committed to innovation and experimentation), and about 30% did not justify their reason for existence.

School Advocate

Our community recently created a charter school after much legal wrangling. Charter schools have certain advantages, such as being exempt from much for the bureaucracy that encumbers public schools. Want new playground equipment? It's purchased and installed in weeks, not months. Local landscaping service is cheaper than your union groundskeeper? Hire the private business.

The downside of charter schools is their effect on the community as a whole. Charter schools tend to be populated by children at the higher end of the socio-economic scale. When these children leave the traditional public school system, so does their parents' interest in the traditional schools. Our charter school has a foundation that raises more money than the entire rest of our school district (roughly 5x on a per-student basis). Did those parents achieve something better for their individual student? Possibly. Maybe it's better that Johnny has a music teacher who also plays for the local symphony. But then again, take the same money and put it into the traditional system, and more children would benefit.

Net/net: while it is good that these parents are concerned about education, apply that energy to the district as a whole--not just to your own child. The foundation of a great democracy is not a well-educated aristocracy--it is a well educated populace.

Kids First

I would like to respond to School Advocate's comment. The "problem" you speak of is not one created by the charter movement. In fact, I would argue that the charter movement was created, in part, to battle this very phenomenon within the traditional public school system. Parents have always focused their concern and their money on their own children. They move into neighborhoods with better schools, they vote to increase local taxes for school improvements for schools in "their" districts, and they donate money to put up fancy football stadiums at their own child's traditional district high school.

By and large, charters serve a higher proportion of low-income, minority students--the percentage varies largely by district and state. For example, in D.C., 98% of charter students are minorities. In Texas the figure is closer to 70%, while in Colorado and Arizona there are higher proportions of white students in suburban charter schools, with similarly high proportions of low-income and minority students in the urban charters and district schools.

The bottom line is that charters create choice for parents, students, and teachers. They do not take money away from districts in most instances (in fact, studies have been done showing that charters in large cities actually increase the per pupil funding for the district schools), and valid comparisons do show charters in general tend to better serve ethnic minorities, particularly Hispanics, than traditional public schools.

I agree that the populace needs to be better informed. Many people, including legislators, still believe that charter schools are private schools that can charge tuition and have religious affiliations. Along those line, better research is needed to answer the important question of how charters schools affect student learning and achievement, for the public education system as a whole.


I have worked as a teacher in a large urban system as well as a literacy trainer for both public and charter schools. Regarding Mr. Henig's comment that both are components of a system, I believe the message should be that this is not an "either/or argument," but rather an "and." Competition is part of the fabric of our political and social system. I believe to eliminate it in our educational system would run counter to our American culture. When both exist next to each other, positive things can happen academically.

I think the biggest disparity is in the difference for teachers in the classroom. Charter schools provide options that public schools do not, in the way of creative solutions to ever-present challenges with possibly less bureaucracy. However, public schools understand the importance of a sense of security in the teacher-student, school-teacher relationship. While the solution should not include acceptance of sub par teacher performance, creating an atmosphere of removing ineffective teachers "for the good of the students" only removes the security of the relationships.

The same concept has applied when families don't work well. The state expedites "better" environments for children by removing the children without working to improve their family environment (though this is most likely the best solution due to some of the extreme circumstances). In the same way, charter schools can produce meaningful solutions, but can be seen as a quick fix to a real and persistent problem of how to support existing public institutions and make them better. Drawing resources away from public institutions may seem better for children, but it undermines the security of the community in the long run.

Achievement is accomplished in an environment that supports a culture of excellence, which in my opinion, cannot happen without the security of personal relationships. Children need them, maybe more than they need an effective professional. Let's support growth of public institutions and encourage competition there, before simply thinking change for the sake of change is better.


More charter and private schools that accept lower income children, the better it relieves pressure and overcrowding in public school systems. Plus it takes involved parents to get children into charter schools and private schools.

L. Smith

Charter schools are just an invention of big city school systems to fix the problem of underenrolled schoolhouses. There is no magic to it insofar as improving the quality of education. The idea is an artifact invented by school administrators. What this country really needs is to look at the education problem from outside the paradigm paralysis of schools, schoolhouses, and teachers. Take a look at the end-to-end treatment and actionable recommendations in the recently released commission report, "Education in America--What's to Be Done?" developed by Trigon-International to see how this problem is best addressed.

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