Research & Commentary: Charter Schools and Incentives for Academic Success

Published November 22, 2011

Approximately 5 percent of U.S. schoolchildren attend public charter schools, and several states—including Michigan and Wisconsin—are considering legislation to lift or remove caps on charter school growth. Although 40 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws allowing charter schools, an analysis by the Center for Education Reform found 29 of these states have laws that impede charter growth and innovation.

Teacher unions and local school boards often claim charter schools siphon funding and smart students away from already-struggling public schools. They also contend expanding charters amounts to “corporatizing” public schools, since many charter schools are run by private companies or foundations.

Charter school advocates reply that every institution has a deep-seated incentive to increase its reach and profits, and calling an enterprise “public” often masks that reality. It’s better to take this reality into account and align school incentives with student interests, instead of special interests, by tying education money to individual children and giving families access to a wide variety of education options, such as those charter schools afford. Schools then would have to demonstrate their value to receive tuition, rather than getting it automatically.

These advocates also note charter schools have a better track record of increasing student achievement, and inadequate charter schools are more easily and more often closed than public schools. Taxpayers should not be forced to prop up, and children forced to attend, any school unable to prove its worth consistently.

The following documents offer more information about public charter schools.


Forty Percent of Children in D.C. Public Schools Now in Charters
Forty percent of D.C. public schoolchildren attend charter schools, up from 5 percent in 1998, reports the Washington Post. The district now has 53 charter schools. City leaders celebrated the trend for increasing confidence in what historically has been one of the worst school districts in the nation, while local public school officials attributed the shift to “bad press.”

The Complex Landscape of Ohio Charter Schools
Ohio charter schools educate 6 percent of the state’s public school students, more than the combined enrollment of the Columbus and Cleveland districts, reports the Plain Dealer. Approximately one-third of these students attend virtual charter schools. Most charter schools do not have unionized employees, and their school boards function much like a traditional school district board in terms of authority and oversight.

Compare the True Performance of Michigan’s Charter Schools
Charter schools outperform traditional public schools in urban areas by 10 to 15 percent on the Michigan achievement test, three Michigan board of education members write to the Detroit Free-Press. Charter schools often educate more high-risk students and produce better graduation rates and long-term academic achievement, and they are far more accountable than traditional schools because of their oversight boards and ease of closure. The state also publicly posts every charter school’s leadership, test scores, graduation rates, and accreditation grade.

A Growing Movement: America’s Largest Charter School Communities
This 2011 report is the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ annual survey of charter schooling and charter school laws across the country. This year, in six school districts in the nation at least 30 percent of students will enroll in charters—in New Orleans, 70 percent attend charter schools, which outperform the traditional schools in that district. In more than 100 districts in the nation, at least 10 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools. More than 240,000 students are on charter wait lists. These figures indicate charter enrollment is dramatically increasing and the schools are becoming a popular option.

Charter Schools Are Ending the Minority Achievement Gap
DC charter schools educate 40 percent of the city’s students and account for 60 percent of its highest-performing public schools, notes the Washington Examiner in an editorial. Charters in DC and the metro area have shown remarkable progress in boosting test scores and graduation rates with mostly minority, mostly poor student populations, and for one-quarter less than the cost of traditional city schools.

The Effect of Charter Schools on Student Achievement
On average, children attending charter elementary schools perform better in reading and math than those in traditional public schools, finds a University of Washington study of the highest-quality research available. Students at charter middle schools also outperform their traditional counterparts in math. The study’s authors, economists Julian Betts and Emily Tang, reviewed 40 studies of charter school achievement that randomize students studied through lotteries and account for a student’s history of achievement using value-added comparisons—research considered the “most rigorous” by scientific standards.

Measuring Charter Performance: A Review of Public Charter School Achievement Studies
Studies using the best data and the most sophisticated research techniques show charter schools outperform comparable traditional public schools, concludes a study by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The most recent studies also demonstrate charter schools produce more significant achievement gains in math and reading than traditional public schools.

Greg Richmond: Testimony Before the U.S. House of Representatives
Any effort to increase the number of charter schools should include an equal effort to ensure quality oversight that maintains high standards, preserves school-level autonomy, and safeguards student and public interests, states Greg Richmond of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in testimony before Congress. He pinpoints three accountability standards: contracts, audits, and student performance. Charters that misspend money and do not produce excellent students should be closed, he says.


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If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].