New studies suggest that—even with fewer resources at their disposal—charter schools keep pace with, and in some cases outperform, conventional public schools. Despite the improved student achievement and high levels of parental satisfaction, charters continue to face severe resistance in many local school districts.
A July 2003 study by education researchers at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research compared student achievement in charter schools and regular public schools. The study measured test score improvements in 11 states over a one-year period, finding charter schools slightly outperformed nearby public schools in math and reading.
The researchers took into account the fact that many charter schools target specific populations--such as at-risk students, the disabled, and juvenile delinquents—making it difficult to draw fair comparisons. "Comparing targeted charter schools to regular public schools is like comparing apples to zebras," they note.
In an attempt to make an "apples to apples" comparison, the study examined test scores at "untargeted" charter schools and regular public schools that serve similar student populations.
The study's strongest results came in Texas and Florida. In Texas, charter schools achieved year-to-year math and reading score improvements equivalent to a gain of 7 and 8 percentile points from the 50th percentile. In Florida, the charter school improvements in math and reading were equivalent to a gain of 6 percentile points for a student starting at the 50th percentile.
California Charters Keep Pace
A RAND Corporation study, released in June 2003, reviewed educational achievement in California's charter schools. The study found that, despite receiving less funding than regular public schools, the state's charter schools kept pace with, and in some cases outperformed, the conventional public school system.
On average, the RAND report found, "start-up" charters slightly outperform conventional non-charter public schools. "Start-up" charter schools, which comprise about 70 percent of California's charters, start from scratch without the benefit of an existing public school campus or facility.
The RAND study also confirmed that charter schools tend to enroll students who are under-served by the conventional public school system. The California charter schools serve a greater percentage of low-income students than the state's public schools, and a slightly greater percentage of students with academic problems. Also, on a percentage basis, twice as many African-American students attend California charter schools as regular public schools.
In a third study, published in Spring 2003, researchers with the nonprofit Charter School Development Center at California State University, Sacramento determined California charter schools that had been operating for at least five years outperformed non-charter public schools and younger charter schools.
"Dramatic Increases" in New York
In New York, charter schools also are demonstrating positive student achievement growth. According to a draft Five-Year Report by the State Department of Education, charters are outperforming some of their host districts and across the board are demonstrating "dramatic increases" after only two years.
For example, in the 2002-03 school year charter schools have made notable gains on the state performance index. Of 15 charter schools for which Grade 4 testing data are available for both the 2001-02 and 2002-03 school years, 14 showed gains in their performance indexes, with an average gain of more than 30 points. For the 11 districts in which those charter schools are located, nine showed gains in their performance index, with average gains of eight points.
Similarly, test score data for eighth-graders show that, of the four charter schools reporting data for 2001-02 and 2002-03, all made gains on the state performance index, with the average gain being 15 points. By contrast, all three authorizing districts showed declines in performance, with the average loss being five points.
Union Opposition Stalls Growth
Despite the good academic news for California's charter schools, the newly configured Los Angeles Unified School District board—where union-backed members recently gained a majority—is now expressing concern about the long-term impact of the charter school movement on the district.
"Before, when the state was wealthy, you could afford to cut a charter loose and let them do their thing," board member Jon Lauritzen told the Los Angeles Daily News. "Now when everybody is cutting their budget, it's hard to tell charters they have full right."
In Michigan, the teacher union appears to have successfully stalled a move to expand charter schools in the state, where more than 12,000 families languish on waiting lists hoping to enroll their children in a charter school. Bob Thompson, a Michigan philanthropist, had offered to invest $200 million to open 15 new charter schools in Detroit.
Although a bipartisan agreement had been reached on an expansion plan, Governor Jennifer Granholm backed away from the agreement after vehement opposition from the Detroit Federation of Teachers, which shut down Detroit schools for a day in protest.
In August, the local media noted the Governor, a Democrat, chose not to send her children to Lansing Public Schools. She sends her two daughters to East Lansing public schools and her son to a private Montessori school.
District Tries to Kill Illinois Charter
In Chicago, the Prairie Crossing Charter School, which ranks in the top 25 schools in Illinois, with 95 percent of its students meeting or exceeding state standards, recently faced a local district campaign to revoke its charter. Officials with Woodland District 50 asked the state board to reject the charter school's renewal application, saying the school has cost the district nearly $2.7 million in state funds since it opened in 1999.
Despite the district protest, the State Board of Education in September voted 6-0 to allow the Prairie Crossing Charter School to receive state funds through the 2008-09 school year.
For more information...
The July 2003 Working Paper from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, "Apples to Apples: An Evaluation of Charter Schools Serving General Student Populations," by Jay P. Greene, Greg Forster, and Marcus A. Winters, is available online from the Institute's Web site at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/ewp_01.pdf.
The 2003 RAND study, "Charter School Operations and Performance: Evidence from California," by Ron Zimmer, Richard Buddin, and colleagues, is available from the RAND Web site at http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1700.
The summary report by Michael Agostini from the Charter Schools Development Center, "Veteran Charter Schools Outperform Non-Charters on API," is available from the Center's Web site at http://www.cacharterschools.org/pdf_files/veteran_API.pdf
The September 2003 report from the Board of Regents of New York's State Department of Education, "Draft Five-Year Report to the Governor and the Legislature on the Charter School Approach," is available from the Department's Web site at http://www.regents.nysed.gov/September2003/0903emscvesidd4.htm.
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.