Research & Commentary: Just by Existing, Charter Schools Are Helping Public Schools Improve

Published August 3, 2017

A peer-reviewed study released in July 2017 in Education Finance and Policy finds charter schools in New York City (NYC) are helping their neighboring public schools improve—just by existing.

The report examined data gathered from 1996 to 2010 on close to 900,000 students from grades 3 to 5 who attended traditional public schools in attendance zones that also contained a charter school. Students in these traditional public schools performed 0.021 standard deviations (a statistical measure of the dispersion of a set of data from its mean) higher in math and 0.020 higher in reading if their schools were located within half a mile of a charter. These gains were even more pronounced if the charter was located in the same building as the traditional school, with students performing 0.083 standard deviations higher in math and 0.059 higher in reading. Proximity to a charter school also saw boosts in student engagement and safety at traditional schools, with fewer students being held back.

“Just the presence of an alternative [school] does it,” study author Sarah Cordes of Temple University told The 74. “It doesn’t really matter how great that alternative is — it’s just the fact that that alternative is there, it’s in the building, and people see it every day.”

Gotham charter schools also made the largest gains during the 2015-16 school year among all Empire State schools on the New York State Common Core English Language Arts and Math Assessments, easily outpacing both state and NYC district schools in each assessment. Charter students outperformed district averages in both math and ELA in 24 of the city’s 28 Community School Districts where charters are in operation, and, according to Families for Excellent Schools, charters now make up 38 percent of the list of the top 50 schools in the city – based on New York State Common Core English Language Arts and Math Assessments scores alone. Minority charter students, who make up 92 percent of all city charter students, also produced more significant gains than their district peers.

National studies have found urban charters outperform their traditional district school peersdo not increase school segregation, and suspend their students for disciplinary infractions at lower rates. Charters have also been found to increase college persistence and enrollmentretain and graduate more of their students than their district competitors, and generally see more growth academically out of their students. New data also obtained by The 74 has found charter school students are graduating college at a rate that’s up to five times greater than the national average. It is no surprise, then, 76 percent of black and Hispanic parents say they favor school choice, according to the American Federation for Children.

There are, of course, charters that produce poor outcomes for the children who attend them. Charter schools are not a cure-all for America’s underperforming education system. School vouchers and education savings accounts are preferable school choice options, as the gold-standard empirical evidence shows. Still, charter schools should have their place. Nationally, they have provided a way out of failing traditional public schools for nearly three million children, and they provide competition for a bloated, sclerotic, unaccountable union-run public school system. This competition helps improve outcomes not just for the children who take advantage of school choice programs, but also for those who remain in their neighborhood public schools.

A child’s school should not be determined by his ZIP code. All parents, regardless of income or neighborhood, should be allowed to ensure their children have the opportunity to attend an effective school.

The following documents provide more information about charter schools and school choice.

In Pursuit of the Common Good: The Spillover Effects of Charter Schools on Public School Students in New York City
This paper by Sarah A. Cordes of Temple University, published in Education Finance and Policy, analyzes the spillover effects of charter schools on traditional public school (TPS) students in New York City. The paper is among the first to estimate the impact of charter school co-location with TPS. Cordes found charter schools significantly increase TPS student performance in English language arts and math and decrease the probability of grade retention.

High School Closures in New York City: Impacts on Students’ Academic Outcomes, Attendance, and Mobility
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the NYC Department of Education implemented a set of large-scale and much-debated high school reforms, which included closing large, low-performing schools; opening new, small schools; and extending high school choice to students throughout the district. The school closure process was the most controversial of these efforts. Apart from the general sense school closures are painful, there was no rigorous assessment of their impact, so the Research Alliance (RA) undertook a study of the 29 low-performing high schools designated for closure in New York City between 2002 and 2008. RA found closing high schools produced meaningful benefits for future students, such as the middle schoolers who then had to choose a different high school. Many of these students ended up going to higher-performing schools than the closed ones, both in terms of the achievement and attendance of incoming students. “Post-closure” students’ outcomes improved significantly; the graduation rate for these students increased by 15 percentage points.

The Productivity of Charter Schools
In this study produced by the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, the successes and failures of charter schools are examined. The study’s findings show charter schools are, on average, much more productive than traditional public schools in the same district. The authors conclude, “What we can say, based on our limited exploratory analysis of the [return on investment] for charter and [traditional public schools] sectors, is that the results suggest that the charter sectors in our sample jurisdictions are operating in a more productive manner than the [traditional public schools] sector at the funding and student achievement levels that currently exist.” 

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

Issues 2016: Charter Schools Are Better at Retaining Hard-to-Educate Students
This Issue Brief, authored by Marcus A. Winters of the Manhattan Institute, explains how students with disabilities are more likely to remain in charter schools than traditional public schools. The study also found students learning English and students with low test scores are more likely to remain in charter schools than traditional public schools.

Pursuing Innovation: How Can Education Choice Transform K–12 Education in the U.S.?
This report by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice summarizes the state of competition in U.S. K–12 education. It pays particular attention to the prevalence and market penetration of charter schools, private school vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships. The effect of competition from charters, vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships on the performance of traditional district schools and education funding is examined using a survey of recent high-quality research on that topic. These summaries and analyses suggest enhancing educational competition using school choice programs would likely improve the productivity of district schools, subject to the effective design of school choice policies.

The Effect of Charter Schools on Student Achievement–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 outperform their traditional counterparts in math. The study’s authors, economists Julian Betts and Emily Tang, reviewed 40 studies of charter school achievement that randomized students studied through lotteries and accounted for a student’s history of achievement using value-added comparisons, research considered the most rigorous by scientific standards.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts
In the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and Washington, DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave. The remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on average, are variable costs, changing directly with student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school actually leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. In the long run, Scafidi notes, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal problems for government schools.

How School Choice Programs Can Save Money 
This Heritage Foundation study of the fiscal impact of voucher programs notes Washington, DC vouchers cost only 60 percent of what the city spends per pupil in government schools. The study estimates if the states with the top eight education expenditures per pupil adopted voucher programs similar to the Washington, DC program, they could save a combined $2.6 billion per year.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact John Nothdurft, Heartland’s director of government relations, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.