The power of high-quality public charter schools

Access to High-Quality Schools | 01/30/2015

Eric Shellan
National Digital Manager

It's National School Choice Week – a chance to celebrate and promote all types of school options for families, including traditional schools, private schools and public charter schools. To celebrate, let's talk about the power of high-quality public charter schools. 

There are more than 6,000 public charter schools in the United States educating more than 2.5 million children. But what are they? And what's the appeal?

What are public charter schools?

First things first, let’s clear something up: public charter schools are just that. Public. That means they’re open to all children, don’t charge tuition and don’t have special entrance requirements.

Public charter schools are unique in the amount of freedom they have to be innovative compared to traditional schools, but they’re still held accountable for advancing student achievement.

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools:

Charter schools were created to help improve our nation’s public school system and offer parents another public school option to better meet their child’s specific needs. The core of the charter school model is the belief that public schools should be held accountable for student learning. In exchange for this accountability, school leaders should be given freedom to do whatever it takes to help students achieve and should share what works with the broader public school system so that all students benefit. In the early 1990s, a small group of educators and policymakers came together to develop the charter school model. Minnesota’s legislature passed the first charter law in 1991, and the first charter school opened in 1992.

Although public charter schools have only been around for 23 years, 42 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing public charter schools.

So, why are so many states embracing high-quality public charter schools?

High-quality public charter schools are particularly effective at educating low-income students and students of color

The general consensus goes like this: on average, public charter schools perform on par with traditional schools, but they’re more effective at educating low-income students and students of color.

Does this mean public charter schools are always better than traditional public schools? Heck no. But the numbers do show that high-quality public charter schools work really well for some students – and for me, that’s a perfect reason to celebrate them during School Choice Week.

Let’s take a look at the data.

In a recent post on Forbes, Adam Ozimek writes:

Let’s look at some of the numbers. Two of the most widely cited charter studies are a 2009 and 2013 analysis of charters in 16 and 27 states respectively by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). The results that many cite are the charter schools do no better or worse than nearby public schools on average, which was the conclusion of the 2009 study. However, I think this claim really missed the bigger picture. While overall charters and public schools compare relatively closely, both the 2009 and 2013 study found that charters did better for students in poverty… And the results are especially strong for black students in poverty.

Ozimek cites this passage from the CREDO study:

Black students in poverty who attend charter schools gain an additional 29 days of learning in reading and 36 days in math per year over their [traditional public school] counterparts…This shows the impact of charter schooling is especially beneficial for black students who in poverty.

Additionally, studies by Harvard and Stanford have found that English Language Learners and low-income students perform better in high-quality public charter schools than in traditional public schools. But don’t take my word for it.

  • Students enrolled at public charter schools found in Hispanic areas across the country are 7.6% more likely to be proficient in math and 4.1% more likely to be proficient in reading than in their traditional school counterparts (Harvard University/National Bureau of Economic Research, 2004)
  • Students enrolled at public charter schools in the poorest areas of the country are 6.5% more likely to be proficient in reading than in their traditional school counterparts (Harvard University/National Bureau of Economic Research, 2004)
  • “Students in poverty, black students, and those who are English language learners (ELL) gain significantly more days of learning each year in both reading and math compared to their traditional public school peers” (Stanford University/CREDO, 2013)
  • “Performance differences between charter school students and their traditional public school peers were especially strong among black and Hispanic students in poverty and Hispanic students who are ELL in both reading and math” (Stanford University/CREDO, 2013).

High-quality public charter schools can also shrink achievement gaps. Take a look.

High-quality public charter schools can shrink achievement gaps

  • In Boston, Massachusetts, children attending high-quality public charter schools significantly improve their performance and proficiency in reading and math compared to their counterparts at traditional public district schools. The largest achievement gains were among students of color and particularly large gains were found for English Language Learners. (The Boston Foundation, 2013; Harvard University, 2011)
  • High-quality public charter schools were more effective for lower income and lower achieving students than for higher income and higher achieving students. In addition, charter schools in large urban areas had positive impacts on student achievement in math. (Mathematica Policy Research, 2010)
  • Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools have positive and statistically significant impacts on student achievement across all years and all subject areas studied. On average, KIPP middle schools in the study closed at least 40% of the black-white achievement gap in math and 26% in reading over three years. (Mathematica Policy Research, 2013)
  • A study of high-performing charter management organizations found they generated significant gains in reading and math with Hispanic students (Center for Reinventing Public Education/University of Washington, 2012)

If you want to dive into the research yourself, check out our works cited.

Special thanks to Parasa Chanramy, the Policy Manager at the Washington affiliate of Stand for Children, for contributing her research to this blog post.

Works Cited

Angrist, Joshua D. and Sarah R. Cohodes et al., “Student Achievement in Massachusetts’ Charter Schools” (January 2011), Center for Education Policy Research, Harvard University

Bowen, Melissa and Joshua Furgeson et al., “Charter-School Management Organizations: Diverse Strategies and Diverse Student Impacts” (January 2012), The National Study of Charter Management Organization (CMO) Effectiveness, prepared by Center on Reinventing Public Education and Mathematica Policy Research

Cohodes, Sarah R. and Elizabeth M. Setren et al., “Charter School Demand and Effectiveness: A Boston Update” (October 2013), report prepared for The Boston Foundation and New Schools Venture Fund

Gleason, Philip and Melissa Clark et al., “The Evaluation of Charter School Impacts: Final Report” (June 2010), Mathematica Policy Research and Institute of Education Sciences, report prepared for U.S. Department of Education

Hoxby, Caroline M. “Achievement in Charter Schools and Regular Public Schools in the United States: Understanding the Differences” (December 2004), Harvard University and National Bureau of Economic Research.

Tuttle, Christina Clark and Brian Gill et al., “KIPP Middle Schools: Impacts on Achievement and Other Outcomes” (February 2013), Mathematica Policy Research, report prepared for KIPP Foundation 

Woodworth, James L. and Margaret E. Raymond et al., “National Charter School Study” (2013), Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), Stanford University

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