California Charter Schools Produce Achievement Gains Similar to Conventional Public Schools

For Release

June 30, 2003

Charter schools in California are generally doing as well as conventional public schools in promoting reading and math student achievement, even though many charter schools struggle to acquire facilities, employ less-credentialed and less-experienced teachers, and receive less public revenue, according to a RAND Education report issued today.

Researchers also reported substantial differences in student performance at different types of California's charter schools. The RAND study found:

  • Charter schools that convert from conventional public schools on average perform about the same as conventional public schools.
  • Charter schools that start from scratch and that provide instruction in traditional classrooms average slightly higher test scores than conventional public schools.
  • Charter schools that allow students to receive a portion of their instruction in their homes or at other locations outside of traditional classrooms average significantly lower test scores than conventional public schools.

“The new RAND study significantly extends and deepens the national knowledge base about charter schools and is the most ambitious and comprehensive study of charter schools yet,” said Brian Gill, a co-author of the report. “The bottom line—that charter schools produce student learning gains comparable to those of conventional public schools, despite resource limitations—provides reason for cautious optimism about charter schools.”

“Charter schools differ markedly from each other and consequently there is no single charter school effect on student achievement,” said Ron Zimmer, lead author of the study. “From campus to campus, charter schools are so diverse it is impossible to paint a single picture of them. To precisely evaluate performance, you really need to consider the type of charter school and the characteristics of the specific charter.”

The study was requested by the non-partisan state Legislative Analyst's Office to assess the progress of California's charter schools. RAND reviewed academic achievement, governance, student characteristics and other issues at California charter schools.

Other Findings

The RAND study also found:

  • Charter schools appear to receive less public funding than conventional schools partly because they often do not apply to participate in large federal and state categorical funding programs, such as the California's transportation program and the federal Title I program for at-risk children.
  • The majority of charter schools have struggled with acquiring and financing facilities. These problems might be addressed in part by recent California legislation intended to give charter schools better access to facilities and reduce their financial burden.
  • At the elementary level, charter schools report having more instruction time in non-core subjects such as fine arts and foreign language than conventional public schools.
  • While teachers at charter schools on average have less experience and are less likely to be credentialed than teachers at conventional public schools, the charter teachers are more likely to participate in informal professional development—such as mentoring programs—than conventional public school teaches.
  • Students enrolled in charter schools are more likely to be African American, and less likely to be Hispanic or Asian, than students at similar public schools. Whites on average are no more likely to attend charter schools than conventional public schools. These findings appear to counter fears that charter schools would become white enclaves.

Large differences exist in the way that special education services are delivered in charter schools and conventional public schools. Charter schools—particularly start-up charter schools—mainstream larger percentages of their special needs students.


The RAND report recommends that chartering authorities collect and monitor fiscal information from charter schools, and that the state consider ways to enhance charter schools' participation in funding programs.

Researchers suggest that California create a system that would track the academic advancement of students over time, which would allow chartering authorities and other school administrators to monitor how individual students progress when they enter or leave schools.

The report also recommends that the state take a closer look at charter schools that provide a significant amount of instruction outside the classroom in order to understand why their academic achievement is lagging behind.


At least 38 states plus the District of Columbia allow charter schools, with nearly 2,700 charter schools enrolling more than 600,000 students across the nation. California was the second state to authorize charter schools, enacting legislation in 1992 that allowed creation of publicly funded schools with the flexibility to operate outside normal school district control.

Charter schools are designed to provide greater educational choice to families, reduce bureaucratic constraints on educators and provide competitive pressure to encourage improvement in conventional public schools. California now has more than 400 publicly funded charter schools enrolling about 150,000 California children.

The schools do not charge tuition and must agree to accept all children who apply for admission.

RAND assessed the progress of charter schools in California by collecting new information and analyzing many existing sources of information. Researchers surveyed principals from all charter schools and a demographically similar set of conventional schools, as well as surveying all of the state's chartering authorities, usually local school districts.

Researchers also performed case studies of nine charter schools, analyzed standardized test results for charter schools and conventional schools, and reviewed several other sources of standardized information about charter and conventional schools.

Other authors of the report are RAND researchers Richard Buddin, Derrick Chau, Glenn Daley, Cassandra Guarino, Laura Hamilton, Cathy Krop, Dan McCaffrey, Melinda Sandler and Dominic Brewer.

About RAND Education
RAND Education conducts independent research and analysis on education policy including school reform and educational assessment and accountability

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.