Fact-Checking Arguments For and Against Charter Schools
When the issue of charter schools is debated, many advantages and disadvantages are attributed to charter schools and their presence in the public education system. As a result, it can sometimes be hard to separate fact from fiction, especially when opinions on the issue are so divided. For example, is it true—as charter advocates suggest—that charter schools perform better that traditional public schools? And is it true—as charter school opponents suggest—that charters “counsel out” low-performing students, contributing to educational inequality? Luckily, many studies have been conducted by researchers to answer these questions, and two of them are presented below.
Effects on Student Achievement
A key component of the argument for charter schools is the notion that, due to increased flexibility and the invisible hand of the market, charters have the potential to provide students with superior educational opportunities compared to traditional public schools. But are charters actually living up to this ideal?
Recent research by Clark, Gleason, Tuttle, and Silverberg (2015) attempted to answer this question by studying 33 charter middle schools. The study compares the test scores of students who were randomly admitted to the schools via lottery to those of students who applied but were not admitted. They found that there is lots of variation in the impact of charter schools on student achievement: some charters significantly improved students’ scores while others significantly reduced students’ scores. On average, however, the charter schools in this study had no significant effect on students’ test scores.
These findings provide a serious caveat to charter school advocates’ argument that charter schools can provide a superior quality of education. While some charters live up to this goal, others fail, and the result is a system that, on average, is no better than traditional public schools with regard to student test scores, according to this research.
Are the findings of Clark et al. (2015) enough to oppose the creation of new charter schools? Perhaps not, but charter school opponents cite a number of other reasons for disagreeing with the practices of charter schools, including the idea that charter schools “counsel out” students who are lower-achieving in order to raise the school’s test scores.
Is there evidence that this practice actually occurs, and does it happen more often in charters than in traditional public schools? Winters, Clayton, and Carpenter (2017) used longitudinal student data from the Denver and NYC public school systems to answer this question. They found that low-achieving students in these districts are not more likely to leave charter schools than traditional public schools. Although these findings may not apply to all charters, they suggest that the phenomenon of “counseling out” is not an inherent problem associated with the charters examined in this study.
While these studies are only a small part of the research on arguments for and against charter schools, they have an important message. Arguments that are overly-simplistic, whether they are for charters (“Charters provide higher quality education”) or against (“Charters ‘counsel out’ low-performers”) are likely overgeneralizations that do not capture the full picture.