Charter schools don’t always push publics to improve


Charter schools that offer an alternative style of instruction have very little, if any, effect on student performance at nearby public schools, say researchers.

Their new research suggests that maximizing any benefits requires a careful examination of charter schools’ organization and the policies that influence their location.

Charter schools receive government funding, yet operate independently of state school systems and local districts. While proponents have long argued that charter schools have a positive impact on district schools by creating competition, the empirical evidence has been mixed.

John Singleton, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Rochester, wanted to know if the potential effects varied according to the type of charter school.

In one study, he looked at those that offer alternative styles of instruction, such as experiential and project-based learning. Examples include Montessori schools, characterized by mixed-age classrooms, student self-assessment, and increased freedoms for students. In a working paper Singleton and two colleagues—Michael Gilraine of New York University and Uros Petronijevic of York University—explain that those charter schools, which they term “horizontally differentiated,” have very little, if any, effect on student performance at nearby public schools.

“The parents sending their children to those charter schools value an alternative style of instruction, so there’s no real competition with traditional public schools,” says Singleton. “As a result, officials at the nearby district schools have no incentive for making changes.”

That’s unlike the non-horizontally differentiated charter schools—the ones that focus on core skills using traditional methods of instruction. In those cases, Singleton describes the average improvement in standardized math test scores as comparable to increasing student learning by three to four weeks. By comparison, there’s virtually no improvement in student learning at public schools located near the horizontally differentiated charter schools.

Up until 2011, North Carolina limited the number of charter schools to 100. The cap has since been lifted, resulting in a near doubling of charter schools. This change gave the researchers access to contemporary data for studying the impact of charter schools on nearby public schools.

The paper by the three researchers follows Singleton’s own work dealing with a different type of impact—that of the funding formula used to support charter schools. In the American Economic Review, his paper describes how the universal per-pupil formula encourages the location of charter schools in more affluent areas, where operational costs are lower. In Florida, that means charter schools tend to locate in the suburbs, where it’s easier to find low-rent spaces in strip malls, old grocery stores, and industrial parks.

“Many charter schools are moving into neighborhoods where they’re not serving what we consider to be the social purpose of charter schools,” says Singleton. “My hypothesis is that many students going to those schools are simply ones who would otherwise go to private schools.”

According to Singleton, charter schools have become one of the primary vehicles for school choice. And based on his studies in Florida, the opportunity to choose a charter school is less likely to be available in urban settings, where the need for options is greater. Singleton encourages policymakers in Florida and other states to adopt funding programs that provide more financial support to schools that have higher operational costs, particularly those that locate in urban neighborhoods.

By better understanding the relationship between operational costs and location, as well as the influence of different types of charter schools, Singleton says policymakers will be able to craft policies that are in the best interests of all students.

Source: University of Rochester