Are California Charter Schools Making A Difference In Education
Formally, charter schools are publicly funded education schools of choice that form a contract, or “charter,” with a public entity (e.g., a school district, state, or university) in which they are given greater autonomy than other public schools over curriculum, instruction, and operations. In exchange for greater autonomy, they are held accountable for results. School choice itself is also a defining feature of charter schools—parents choose to send their children to these schools. In contrast, students are typically assigned to a traditional public school based on their residential location. The choice feature inherent in charter schools means that these schools are reliant on their ability to attract students from their community.
Proponents argue that charter schools will be able to cut through red tape, over innovative education programs, provide new options to families, and promote healthy competition for traditional public schools.
Opponents argue that charter schools are no more effective than traditional public schools, that they may exacerbate racial segregation, that they create social strains for school districts, and that too many of them are unreliable operations.
Most of the current literature has narrowly focused on how charter schools affect achievement for students that attend these schools. However, RAND believes it is important to consider the possible impact charter schools are having more broadly, including their cost-effectiveness, systemic effects (e.g., effects on students who choose not to attend charter schools), distributional effects (both by ability and race/ethnicity), and any operational differences between charter and traditional public schools that may lead to broader educational innovations.
The RAND analysis suggests that students who transfer from traditional public schools to charter schools have lower achievement scores prior to moving (in both math and reading) than their peers who choose to remain in a traditional public school. These results suggest that charter schools are not “cream-skimming” as critics fear, but rather attracting lower-performing students. The analysis also suggests that black students are much more likely than white students to choose to attend a charter school. Hispanics are slightly more likely, and Asian students are no more or less likely than white students to attend charter schools.
Is Charter School Competition Improving
the Performance of Traditional Public Schools?
Charter advocates argue that these schools may have their greatest impact through systemic effects—the competitive effects of charter schools could improve the performance of traditional public schools and enhance the performance of students who do not attend charter schools. RAND found no evidence that charter schools create a competitive effect.
Do Charter Schools Receive Sufficient
Monitoring from Chartering Authorities?
RAND found that of the three types of chartering authorities available in California (school districts, county boards of education, and the California State Board of Education), most charter schools are authorized by school districts, and most districts have authorized only one school each. Few petitions for charter schools are formally denied, and, once authorized, only a handful have been revoked or closed. Compared with traditional schools, charter schools report greater control over school-level decision making (as the law intends). Only a small fraction of chartering authorities collect accountability information such as student grades and promotion and dropout rates.
RAND Finding On Charter Schools
The charter movement grew out of a hope that by providing greater autonomy to schools, they would be able to cut through bureaucratic frustrations and over innovative, efficient, and effective educational programs, provide new options to families, and promote healthy competition for traditional public schools. Our results from California show that charter schools generally perform on par with traditional public schools, but they have not closed the achievement gaps for minorities and have not had the expected competitive effects on traditional public schools.