If you have read CPE’s report Charter Schools: Finding out the facts you are aware that students in just 17 percent of charter schools nationwide were better off than if they attended their neighborhood traditional public school. This is despite the fact that ‘on-average’ students in charter schools made slightly greater academic gains than if they had attended their traditional public school. How could so few charter schools be effective while the average charter school student makes greater academic gains than if they attended their local public school? Results from a recent study on the impact of New Jersey charter schools provides a glimpse as to what may be behind these apparent contradictory findings.
Earlier this month CREDO, the Stanford University research institution which originally found that 17 percent of charter schools are more effective than traditional public schools, released a new report specifically examining the effectiveness of charter schools in New Jersey. The findings from New Jersey paint a more positive picture of charter schools, where on-average students in charter schools made greater gains in both math and reading than if they had attended their local public school. Furthermore, students in 40 percent of charters schools were better off in math than if they attended their local public school. While not earth shattering, these findings provide some of the most positive results of any state level charter school study.
Even so, a closer look at the data reveals the positive impact of New Jersey’s charter schools resides in the city of Newark. CREDO found that charter schools in Newark were extremely effective where charter school students ‘on-average’ gained seven and half months more of learning in reading than if they attended their traditional public school. On the other hand, students attending charter schools in other New Jersey cities actually learned about a month less of reading than if they attended their traditional public school.
Despite the overall positive findings for charter schools in New Jersey, once again, research shows that charter schools are no silver bullet. At the same time, research shows that charter schools can be quite effective for some students in some districts. So blindly increasing the number of charter schools is clearly not the best way to improve student achievement on a large scale nor is it an effective use of taxpayer money.
Yet, there are students who benefit greatly from charter schools which is why school boards are in the best position to determine whether charter schools are right for students in their district or not. The data clearly shows Newark taxpayers are getting their money’s worth but it is reasonable to assume that taxpayer money going to charter schools in the other New Jersey cities could be used much more effectively to improve student achievement.
This is likely not only true in New Jersey but across the nation. While there are a number of highly effective charter schools across the nation there are even more that are less effective than traditional public schools. Charter schools are certainly here to stay and are one tool to improve student achievement but they are just that one tool. Charter schools should be targeted to where they are likely to have the greatest impact. This will free up resources for other schools to use other tools that may be more effective at improving student achievement in their district. What gets lost in the debate about charter schools is that while we all want to improve student achievement there is no one way to do so.