Are charter schools better than traditional public schools?

Been there done that. As CPE’s report Charter Schools: Finding out the facts found a couple years ago, ‘on-average’ charter schools perform slightly better than traditional public schools. However, the report noted that the quality of charter schools varies dramatically from very effective to very ineffective. In fact, 83 percent of charter schools were no more effective than the neighborhood traditional public school their students would have attended. Yes, a couple of years have gone by since we released that report but no new research has come out showing anything different.

In fact, several studies examining the effectiveness of charter schools have been released over the past couple of years that have solidified those findings.  A number of these studies were conducted by CREDO the Stanford University research organization that conducted the most rigorous and comprehensive study of charter schools across 16 states. Since that time they have conducted several other similar studies based on individual states like New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania which provided similar findings to their 16 state study  where they found that ‘on-average’ charter schools are just as, or slightly more, effective than traditional public schools but that the charter school average is pulled up by a small number of very effective charter schools typically located in large urban districts.

To counter these findings some charter school proponents have stated that charter schools don’t stack up as well in these studies due to the large number of new charter schools. The point being that just like new teachers and principals it takes a couple of years for a school to be as effective as they are capable of being. Certainly a valid point. However, a new CREDO report found that this is not likely the case as nearly all charter schools tend to be as effective in their first year as they will be five years later. In particular, CREDO found that 80 percent of the lowest performing charter schools remain low performing five years later. So growing pains are not the reason charter schools don’t stack up better compared to traditional public schools in research.

After years of debating whether charter schools are more effective it is time to move on.  Charters schools are here to stay but are certainly no silver bullet. Now researchers should focus on what makes those high quality charter schools so effective. Not only to improve charter schools but to take those lessons and apply them to traditional public schools where applicable. The most recent CREDO report does just that in fact. The latest report is a must-read for any school board or other organization that has the power to authorize charter schools as it provides insights into what makes for an effective charter school. Authorizers, policymakers, and educators need more research like this so they can make more informed decisions about what is best for our all students not just those who attend the highly effective charter schools.

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