- What exactly are charter schools? A charter school is a public school that has more lax legal requirements about funding, staffing and curriculum. For example, many states allow charter schools to hire non-certified teachers. Somebody who wants to operate a charter school must usually obtain permission from a local or state government. The ease of starting and operating a charter school varies from state to state. Arizonais a charter school hothouse, while other states have none. Depending on state law, the charter school must file reports and be inspected by state officials. Charter schools often receive funding from state or local governments.
- Why would someone start a charter school? The reasons vary, but parents are often frustrated with existing schools and school reformers want a shot at operating a school along innovative teaching principles. School reformers see charter schools as offering more options and, sometimes, a step towards competition in education.
- Why do people hate charter schools? Critics see charter schools as taking away resources from standard public schools and as havens for poorly qualified teachers. A few see charter schools as opportunities for people to concentrate on serving privileged students, and are a betrayal of the ideal of public education. Some charter school proponents say that charters threaten the power of teacher’s unions because the law permits schools to have non-certified teachers. Click here to read a thoroughly anti-charter school essay by Amy Stuart in the Washington Post.
- Who goes to charter schools? This is tough because the data on charter schools is often not available to the public (MR readers should email me if they can find quality raw data). In the 1990s, the student body at charter schools seemed to resemble other schools in the area. (Click here.) A more recent Department of Education report suggests that slightly more white students attend charter schools than at other schools in the same area. The big point, which a lot of people have missed, is that charter schools have not turned out to be sanctuaries for wealthy, highly privileged students. The major migration that many feared never happened. My guess is that wealthier students already live in neighborhoods with high quality schools, either public or private, and have no reason to take a risk on a controversial new type of school. Those who work at charter schools should email me to tell me if my hunch is true.
- The Big Question: Do charter schools help students learn more than traditional schools? Reading a few reports, I’d say that charter schools have a mixed record so far. They definitely aren’t disasters (but some individuals schools are bad) but they haven’t shown themselves to be vastly superior to either public or private schools (even though some excellent schools are charter schools). The key in reading these reports is to look for comparisons of similar students. If you simply look at average test scores of charter schools, you miss the point because education researchers know that learning is tied to factors that schools can’t control – academic aptitude/IQ, family, peer effects, etc. Eduwonk and the Constrained Vision Blog have recent posts pointing out that charter schools do OK on some measures, comparable to public schools. Their conclusions are based on findings from recent reports that were said to be devastating critiques of charter schools.
In my opinion, fans and critics miss the best thing about charter schools – bad schools close. Since people are under no obligation to attend these schools, they will actually close if they are poorly managed and do a disservice to their students. Critics see a closed charter school as a victory. Yes, it is a victory, but not for charter school opponents. It is a victory for education in general – a poorly run institution has stopped operating, something you rarely see in other schools.
Update: A reader reminds that I have omitted discussion of Hoxby’s analysis showing that charter schools do well when you control for the types of students who attend the school, which lists data sources. Click here to read the Hoxby paper. When I wrote above about scarcity of data, I was thinking of a single data set available from a data bank such as the ICPSR, not about studies that assemble data from multiple print and electronic sources. Thanks, Yesim!