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Abstract

The debate over charter schools often appears to be driven by theory and ideology, with little information on how the reform itself is affecting students. This occasional paper adds clarity to the debate by consolidating the results from the RAND Corporation’s comprehensive assessment of charter schools. A key feature of this assessment has been the use of individual student-level data to track students from school to school over time and to measure their test scores in traditional and charter schools. The analysis dispels many of the arguments from charter proponents or critics. The results show that test scores for charter school students are keeping pace with comparable students in traditional public schools. Similarly, minority students are performing no better in charter than in traditional classrooms, so charters are not affecting the achievement gap for these students. Charter proponents have also expected that competition from charters would improve the performance of traditional public schools, but the evidence does not support this contention. On a more positive note, charter schools have achieved comparable test score results with fewer public resources and have emphasized non-core subjects more than have traditional schools. In addition, the evidence shows that charter schools have not created “white enclaves” or “skimmed” high-quality students from traditional public schools, as critics feared. Finally, we discovered that school level operations varied considerably between charter and traditional schools, but these operational differences had little effect on student achievement.

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