What Do We Know About Charter Schools? Moving Beyond the Talking Points


Apr 4, 2013

two elementary students with a teacher

Since their inception in 1992, charter schools have been a lightning rod for controversy in the education policy world. The debate's latest battleground is Massachusetts, where policymakers are weighing the elimination of a cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in the state's lowest-performing districts.

Charter schools are publicly funded and operate under a publicly issued charter that gives them greater autonomy over instruction, operations, and curriculum than traditional public schools. Students or parents choose charter schools, rather than being assigned based on where they live.

Proponents of charter schools have argued that they:

  • increase educational innovation
  • expand student choice
  • improve student achievement
  • foster healthy competition with traditional public schools.

Opponents, however, contend that charter schools:

  • increase racial/ethnic stratification
  • siphon the best students from traditional public schools
  • provide no real improvement in student outcomes
  • drain resources from traditional public schools.

Despite the controversy, charter schools are a growing reality in the United States, where President Barack Obama is a self-described “big proponent.” According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, more than 6,000 charter schools now educate more than 2.3 million students. This is 275,000 more than in 2011–12, the greatest single-year spike in history.

Given the increasing prominence of charter schools in U.S. education, it's worth considering what RAND research has found. Here are some key points:

  • Charter schools do not siphon the best students from traditional public schools or create racial/ethnic stratification. Researchers examined prior achievement test scores of students transferring to charter schools and found that they were near or below the local or state average. In most sites, the racial composition of the charter school was similar to that of the traditional public school the student had transferred from.
  • Charter schools are generally on par with traditional public schools in terms of improving student achievement, but they vary greatly. That said, charter schools generally do not perform well during their first year of operation; students tend to fall behind. But gains occur thereafter. Also, students in virtual charter schools showed achievement gains that fell significantly short of those in classroom-based charter schools and traditional public schools.
  • Charter schools do not help or harm student achievement in nearby traditional public schools. Evidence does not support the claims that charter schools help (by applying pressure) or harm (by draining resources) nearby traditional public schools.
  • Students attending charter high schools may be more likely to graduate and go on to college. Based on data from Chicago and Florida, attending a charter high school appeared to boost a student's graduation probability by 7 to 15 percentage points, while their likelihood of college enrollment increased by 8 to 10 percent.

These findings have a number of policy implications.

For instance, federal policymakers could help states determine best practices for charter school start-up operations to reduce the drop in student achievement during the first year.

Similarly, guidelines to help evaluate performance could help states improve or eliminate low-performing charter schools. Policymakers might also examine patterns to determine which types of charter schools are more or less likely to succeed.

Finally, research highlights the importance of moving beyond test scores and broadening the scope of measures that evaluate success — so we can fully assess the performance of charter schools.

— Pete Wilmoth