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The Next Step For Charter Schools


A recent Stanford report on charter schools is a good read for those following the education reform debate. The report is a follow-up to a notable 2009 study that found charter schools to be lagging behind traditional public schools in both reading and math—a set of findings that were quickly latched on to by various opponents of the charter school movement. Unfortunately for them, the new report is not such an easy political football.

The new report points out that nationally charters are now running even with traditional public schools in teaching math, and are overall ahead of the national average in teaching reading. The schools particularly help underprivileged and minority students, groups that were destined to serve time in some of the worst public schools.

But perhaps the most interesting data point, and one that’s likely to be seized on by both sides in this debate, is the divergence in performance among charter schools on a state-by-state basis. This LA Times editorial argues that the areas where charter schools perform best are those where the state is exercising more oversight:

So it’s not a coincidence that states with the most laissez-faire charter rules have had the most abysmal results. In Nevada, which until recently approved charters with near-abandon and then let them operate with little accountability, charter students lost more than half a year of learning each year than if they’d stayed in the regular public schools. […]

Charter schools in Washington, D.C., which are held to higher accountability standards, give their students the equivalent of more than half a year of extra learning in math and 11 weeks in reading over traditional schools, the study found.

A completely unregulated free market approach may not be a silver bullet, but it’s also clear that the hidebound traditional public school system is resistant to reform even with improved standards. While the data shows that charter schools can be every bit as poorly run as their public counterparts, charter schools’ increased freedom to experiment, if channeled properly, is producing measurable improvements.

So how best to channel this freedom? Rather than focusing solely on top-down oversight from the state as the Times editorial does, we’d like to see more of this oversight being done by the parents. Voucher programs would be one way to accomplish this, but the key is parental choice. Giving parents the ability to choose between competing schools would provide strong incentives for schools to post measurable results—pressure that should over time translate to even greater performance gains for charter schools. The competition would also lead traditional public schools to do a better job; the goal of school reform should not be to favor one type of school over others but to push all schools toward better performance.

A government-provided checklist of standards is certainly not without its uses, as it provides a base acceptable level of performance against which to clear away the most incompetent institutions. But as a driver of actual educational improvements, empowering individual families with a modicum of choice would in our opinion go a long way to improving outcomes across the board.

[Classroom image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Anthony

    Another report from “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education” intimates that market-oriented education reforms’ rhetoric trumps reality vis-a-vis charter schools. The report covers Washington D.C., Chicago, and New York K-12 school districts and offers a different perspective on how to improve educational outcomes.

    • Andrew Allison

      You naughty little boy ;<) : the report is subtitled: "Reformers assert that test-based teacher evaluation, increased access to
      charter schools, and the closure of “failing” and under-enrolled schools will boost at-risk students’ achievement and narrow longstanding race- and income-based achievement gaps." Given that it opposes reform of any kind, might we suspect that it is not entirely impartial?

      • Anthony

        Hello Andrew; the study I am referring to written by Elaine Weiss and Don Long is about 80 pages and covers charter schools, teacher evaluation, testing, and more. I am not sure we are talking about same report because opposition to reform per se was not my inference. Though reports partiality or impartiality upon suggesting comparatively did not cross my mind (just providing another viewpoint for non partisans – never naughty).

        • Andrew Allison

          Hello Anthony. Yes are talking about the same report (a URL would have saved readers the trouble of cutting, pasting and searching for the title). As I noted, report surveys all major reform efforts , not just Charter Schools as you suggested in “intimates that market-oriented education reforms’ rhetoric trumps reality vis-a-vis charter schools” and finds them all lacking. A, hopefully accidental, sin of omission to which I drew your attention.
          Regards, Andrew

          • Anthony

            Andrew, thanks but my purpose was to introduce another report which contained information about charters. I used title from old reference file conveniently available, not to make market point; I think neither sin of omision nor commission just information thrust. thanks again (also, above I believe you mean: Yes we….).

          • Andrew Allison

            Thanks. URL please.

          • Anthony

            Someone gave me hard copy of report spring 2013; but I am sure if you put ‘Broader, Bolder Approach to Education’ in your search engine you get there.

          • Andrew Allison

            That’s what I did originally, and it is, as I suggested, an attack on any reform. Let’s stop this now. Best.

          • Anthony

            We can agree to disagree but for me it was never a contention about reform. (but this may help and I generally don’t do others’ investigation Best to you also – End of Thread.

          • Andrew Allison

            p.s. May I add that it is a pleasure to engage in a mutually respectful debate.

          • Anthony

            Pleasure is ours, and thanks.

  • Kavanna

    Nice summary of the results.

    It’s probably hopeless by now to keep pointing out an important point, but “free markets” don’t lack regulation. One of the things that makes markets free is the absence of force or fraud. That requires the rule of law, which requires government. The catch: government itself must follow the rule of law. Modern “big” or “activist” government often doesn’t. Just look at the Federal Reserve and our lack of stable money, for example.

    Anyway, we’re talking about public schools here, so use of “unregulated free market” language is absurd. It’s like talking about “unregulated free-market Medicare.”

    And it’s precisely the decaying but entrenched “blue state” interest groups at the local level whose power needs to be curbed by other levels of government and by semi-free, semi-competitive mechanisms like charter schools.

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