Many charter school supporters believe their hour has come. Locally, charters play an increasingly integral part in the school reform agenda of the Los Angeles Unified School District. At the state level, California charters recently received a boost from legislation that permits them access to new bond funding for school construction. And nationally, the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program includes high-quality charter schools among its priorities.
But an improved outlook for charter schools is not a guaranteed cure-all for bad schools.
A number of studies over the last year have shown that charter schools in California and elsewhere have had mixed results. In 2009, Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which I direct, released the results of a study examining charter school effectiveness in 15 states and the District of Columbia.
We found that, on average, students attending charters did not learn as much as their traditional public school peers. Charter schools, we found, were twice as likely to perform less well than public schools with similar demographics as they were to outperform those public schools.
There was considerable variation across states, though. Students in Massachusetts and Louisiana charter schools had stronger academic gains than their public school peers, while in Arizona and Ohio, charter school students performed more poorly.
In California, the results were mixed. Students in charter schools had significantly lower reading growth but significantly higher growth in math. Although there are a substantial number of high-quality charter schools in California, they were outnumbered by those with undistinguished results.
The record of charter schools suggests that we should move forward with caution.
Throughout California, more than 340,000 students attend charter schools. In this school year alone, the ranks of charter students in the state grew by a record-setting 56,000 over last year. Much of the growth occurred in Los Angeles, where 19 new schools opened in the fall. With 163 charter schools, Los Angeles has the largest number of any district in the country, and many more are likely for next year. Some charters are in high demand, with lengthy waiting lists and lottery-based admissions.
But this dramatic growth of both demand and supply intensifies the concerns about quality. With the increased popularity of charters in the state, we need greater scrutiny. And we also need to study what has worked elsewhere.
Our center’s latest study, released this month, focused on the performance of charter schools in New York City. There, the average student in a charter school learns significantly more in both reading and math than the average student in a traditional public school. Not only were charter schools as a whole better in New York than in any other city we have studied; there also was less range in quality. Although there were some underperforming charter schools in New York City, they made up a far smaller proportion of the whole than in California or the rest of the nation.
The strong results in New York City have important implications. They show that even in challenging urban environments, excellent education can be delivered by charter schools. Moreover, the concentration of successful schools suggests that careful policy choices about charter schools and their operations can make a big difference in their outcomes. The New York City Department of Education stands as a learning lab for cities like Los Angeles.
New York City has three policy elements that appear instrumental to their success. The first is political alignment and support for charter schools among district and community leaders. Race to the Top requires local coalitions to agree on the role that charter schools will play in a comprehensive approach to improving education. New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has spent considerable time and political capital to mold support for his plans for a vibrant charter sector among his political circles.
Second, New York City charter schools benefit operationally from the availability of competent organizations that can guide new schools through the start-up maze and help them establish effective management and financial systems. As a consequence, charter schools in New York City are less likely to encounter operational pitfalls and can thus focus more on teaching and learning.
The final element that has made New York City charters successful is high-quality oversight from those who authorize the charter school. Schools are provided with clear, objective and explicit criteria that they must meet to remain in operation, and the rules are applied un- apologetically and consistently.
In New York City, charters are given every chance to succeed. But in the end, they must produce results in the form of student achievement or be cut off.
A school district’s most important function in authorizing charters is to step in when a school fails to provide its students a high-quality education. If a charter school is not serving students, it should lose its charter. School districts in California cannot fall short on this responsibility.
Los Angeles Unified should take a close look at the policies and practices that exist in New York City. Timely policy choices could positively affect the strength of the state’s application for Race to the Top funds and drive dramatic improvements in the ability of charter schools to deliver high-quality education for their students.
Margaret E. Raymond is director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. The center’s study of New York City charter schools is online at credo.stanford.edu.