The Debate Over Public Charter Schools

Compulsory public education has not been a norm for all of the US until after WW1. Since then it has seen significant shifts in school culture as well as significant shifts in system performance. At one time the US led the world in math and science education, but now it consistently ranks poorly in student skill proficiency despite having very high per student spending (ranks anywhere from 14 to 40 in education performance depending on the ranking). The system is failing in most urban school districts and school performance closely tracks actual economic inequality. Rather than public schooling being a tool for lifting students out of poverty, it has become just another reflection of pre-existing inequality.

One relatively new and popular proposal (most started in early ’90s) for improving public education has been the creation of public charter schools. These schools are regulated by the state and are given licenses to create schools in mostly urban districts. Parents can then decide to send their students to those schools free of charge. Some smaller portion of the tax money that would be allotted to the traditional public schools for that student is then sent to the new public charter school. These schools are often managed by nonprofits but are also occasionally run by for-profit businesses. Good examples of charter networks include KIPP and BASIS.

The idea behind charter schools is simple: if we make a free market system that keeps schools more accountable to student performance, then schools will improve. Charter schools are more easily closed and they have to work more to keep students in the school since parents can freely choose to send their kids back to the traditional public schools in the area. They also create competition for the traditional public schools which similarly have to fight for funding and students once students are given other options.

One important misconception is that charter networks are all for-profit businesses. That is not necessarily true and many of the leading networks are non-profit. So when people pose the question of “public charter schools” as a question of “should we privatize”. In a sense, the move to charter is a move from public management to private management, but when many people hear “privatize” they assume that profit is the main motive and that for-profit businesses are the primary forces behind this. In the case of public charter schools, that is not the case. So when people frame it strictly as a debate on “privatization”, I think there may be good reason to be careful of what they say because they are most likely pre-framing the question in ways that are misleading and are more likely to have a negative mood affiliation for liberals in particular.

That last point brings up another misconception. Charter schools are not a clearly bipartisan problem. Everyone gets votes when they say they will prioritize education, but the education policy details for actual campaigning politicians is always fuzzy and the divide on public charter schools does not at all map neatly to a difference between democrats and republicans. It is the case that most republicans support charter schools, but most charter schools are run by democrats and the real political divide on the issue is fought within the democratic party. If you’re interested in a good real world example of this, I’d recommend reading into the intra-party fight in New York City between Bill De Blasio and Eva Moskowitz/Andrew Cuomo.


Common arguments against charter schools

  • They aren’t actually better than traditional public schools (mostly measured by student mastery of material).
  • They divert funding and attention away from traditional public schools — why quit on pre-existing institutions that could be reformed?
  • Charter schools are held to different regulatory standards that could be worse for students
  • In some cases lower teacher certifications
  • In some cases different curricula
  • In some cases lower requirements for school leadership — some instances of people with no education experience leading schools
  • In some cases not meeting the standards for having counselors and nurses
  • In some cases having very rigorous disciplinary systems that may be psychologically damaging to students
  • There are some cases of ESL and special need students getting worse education from charter networks, and some charter networks just outright don’t accept ESL and disabled students.
  • Because school performance is in part based on test taking, some charters are over-incentivized to teach to the test which may lead to worse education and may lead to cherry-picked classes that focus on helping the greatest number of students while quitting on any students that don’t fit the college prep mould.
  • Charters are generally anti-union and teacher’s unions are generally anti-charter. Charter networks routinely fire teachers and keep teachers to performance standards that may be unfair. They generally push back on tenure and other benefits of teaching in public education….In other words there are some arguments that charters are bad for teachers.
  • It’s just morally objectionable to have a profit motive in education.
  • When thinking about the education, we ought to also think about the wellbeing of teachers, and teachers are better treated in traditional public schools

Common arguments for charter schools

  • They are better than traditional public schools (in terms of student test scores).
  • They create systems that are more responsive to the needs of the different types of communities they operate in.
  • They give parents a choice over where their children go to school, they aren’t forced into one option.
  • Charter networks are more effective at getting students into college
  • Most arguments are all built on different proposals for how the charter system can allow for the schools themselves to perform better than traditional public schools (performance typically measured by student test scores, college admissions, etc.). So it very clearly hinges on whether performance actually is better. Some of the proposed systemic mechanisms that are supposed to allow for increased performance are:
  1. Charters typically have more power to fire ineffective teachers and admins
  2. Because the charter’s existence is based on meeting performance standards while also catering to parents as consumers that can freely come and go, charters are supposed to be more responsive and adaptable to the needs of students than traditional public schools
  3. Charters are often kept to lower regulatory standards which are supposed to allow them to be more adaptable and more capable of trying and identifying new effective teaching methods.
  4. Less tied down by teacher unions and some of the downsides that those organizations can have

Research Resources:

Here I picked five of the the most cited, and most detailed studies on the performance of public charter schools as compared to traditional, state managed public schools. I picked them for a variety of reasons, but the primary ones were that they had high citations relative to other articles on the topic, they were recent meta-analyses, and/or they were put together by the most important policy thinktanks in the country. To the last point, I think you could think of that as a downside or bias — as this is clearly about the RAND and Arkansas study — but they are the most recent, influential, and detailed of the studies, and, even if a truly deep look into the data may lead to some worries about the biases of the publishing organizations, their importance in policy is a good enough reason to at least skim them.

TL;DR→This is a meta-analyses on the studies of charter school performance “with a focus on lottery-based studies and rigorous value-added studies.” The overall conclusions are that: (1) charters outperform traditional public schools in math, (2) charter networks perform as well as traditional public schools in reading.

TL;DR→This study looked at the impacts of Charter networks that employ “No Excuse” disciplinary systems. They found that “No Excuses charter schools increase student math and literacy achievement by 0.25 and 0.17, respectively, for approximately each year of attendance.”

TL;DR→This is a fairly detailed book by RAND on charter school network performance in 8 states. The most succinct summaries of performance can be found in the appendix starting at page 105. I have provided the most relevant charts below, but there are many more and if you want to get a full understanding of the data it’s best to go through the actual document. The gist of the charts is that charter performance is a sort of mixed bag. Good in many places, as well as traditional public schools in many places, and performing worse than traditional publics in some places.

TL;DR→This is a large report by the University of Arkansas. The executive summary provides the closest thing to an abstract and can be condensed partly to the two following charts.

TL;DR→Study of performance in Michigan. Found that “test scores of charter school students do not improve, and may actually decline, relative to those of public school students…suggest[s] that charter schools have had no significant effect on test scores in neighboring public schools.”

TL;DR→Longitudinal study of charter performance in Florida. It finds that it takes charter schools on average 5 years to meet the performance of traditional public schools and it also finds that charters “targeting at-risk and special education students demonstrate lower student achievement, while charter schools managed by for-profit entities perform no differently on average than charters run by nonprofits.” It also finds that charter competition does create some modest increases in performance of nearby traditional public schools.


Brief Breakdown

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a clear side on this issue. The most recent meta-analyses find significant gains for charter networks in student performance on science and math, and zero-to-little significant gains in charter network performance for reading. On average, charter networks achieve these gains with lower per-capita student costs than traditional public schools. However, this is not necessarily the case for every instance of charter schools in the country. As seen by the last few articles, there are many cities and states that saw charters either making no improvements on traditional public schools or even, in some cases, making it worse for students. Charter networks as a whole are not necessarily a cohesive and clear category — there are so many different variations across it like whether it is for-profit or non-profit, whether it is lottery based, etc. — and treating them all as one of the same thing can lead to a lot of interpretive confusion when looking at this data.

It’s also important to note that all of these studies are pointed at one primary question→ whether student performance is better in traditional public schools or public charter schools. As you can see in the sections on common arguments for and against charters, there are many many more reasons for why someone would or wouldn’t support the growth of charter networks, and many of these arguments aren’t the sort of questions that can just be easily measured and weighed — and as I think you can see from the studies, even the questions that can be measured like student performance on standardized tests are extremely complicated and difficult to interpret as supporting any one conclusion. For instance, if you are a unionized teacher or have a family-member or friend who is a unionized teacher, there’s good reason that they might be anti-charter. From the start, many charter networks have fought against teacher rights and have been squarely opposed to many of the benefits that the unions have fought for. In some cases that may have ended up being better for students and a lot of those fights have made it easier to get low performing or even criminally abusive teachers out of the classroom. But there are good reasons to think that some of this attack on unionization and teacher rights could weaken the system and drive good teachers out.

I genuinely intend for this to be a relatively unbiased framing of the issue. I don’t think the problem has a clear answer, but I think that a lot of the ideological assuredness towards either side can be easily ironed out by at least briefly looking at the messiness of the empirical data as well as the mix of good reasons for either side.

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