Commentary | Education

Alternative is no solution—On average, charter students don’t do better than public counterparts


Alternative is no solution

On average, charter students don’t do better than public counterparts

By  Lawrence Mishel and  Martin Carnoy

For big-city school superintendents, embracing effective charter schools in their districts makes sense. It gives parents and students more options.However, charter schools are unlikely to solve the most important problems facing public education.

We have enough experience with charter students to know that on average, they don’t do better than similar students in the public schools. This is true whether they are low-income minority students or white suburban students. So there are well-known examples of very effective charter schools, but there are also poorly performing charters that are not well-publicized.

Simply expanding the charter sector does not improve public education. Nor is there evidence of any substantial boost in public schools by competing with charters. Schools such as KIPP attract academically higher than average low-income students and, by keeping them in school longer hours, push them harder than inner-city public middle schools. But not all charters schools are KIPPs.

Another reason that public education should not and will not become charter education is that charters usually employ teachers with little experience and a lot of initial enthusiasm who turn over at a much higher rate than teachers in public schools. According to a recent study in Ohio, teacher turnover is about 50% per year in charters against 10% in public schools. An urban school system would do much worse if it just hired young teachers who stayed a year or two. One or two KIPP schools operating in an urban area might recruit enough capable teachers every year, but staffing 20 middle schools that way is a recipe for disaster.

Charter schools claim that they would do better than public schools if they got the same funding. Yet, one reason that public schools get more funding is that they provide more high cost services, including transportation and much more special education.

It is understandable for superintendents to expand charter schools that are high-performers, as long as they do not expand the low-performers as well (what has happened so far). Nevertheless, a few effective charters do not make an effective inner city school system. We need to look beyond charter schools to further improve our schools.

Lawrence Mishel is president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.  Martin Carnoy is an EPI research associate and professor of education and economics at Stanford University.

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