Commentary | Education

Do charter schools cut it? No


Do charter schools cut it? No 

By  Lawrence Mishel

Charter schools, as supporters promised, can give parents and students more options. But more doesn’t automatically mean better, at least on average. Moreover, the research shows that charters will not solve the toughest problems facing public education.

Many leading charter school advocates argued that public education was failing because of stifling bureaucracy and restrictive teachers’ union contracts. If specially chartered schools were created without these bureaucratic and union burdens, they said, student performance would markedly improve. In their vision, regular public schools would even get better, spurred by competition, and low-income and minority students would be the biggest beneficiaries.

We’ve now had enough experience with charters and enough research has been done to know that the hopes many people had for them haven’t panned out. Charter school students, on average, don’t do better than similar students in regular public schools. This is true for all types of students, whether they are minority urban students from low-income families or white suburban students.

This conclusion holds for the most sophisticated studies as well as simpler ones, despite public quibbling over the merit of various studies. No research finds a sizable advantage, on average, to sending children to charter schools. No doubt some do better there, but others do worse. Nor is there evidence of any substantial boost in public schools by competing with charters.

 Does this mean we should not have charter schools? No. Rather, we need better oversight to eliminate those that don’t perform well. Supporters say charters are held accountable for “results, not [following] rules.” In fact, charters that don’t produce “results” rarely close: They’re not held any more accountable than other public schools.

Charters can provide more options and can, free from some regulation but with appropriate oversight, explore alternative practices that might bring better results. But we should understand that, freed from regulation, some charters will adopt practices that yield worse results.

The point should not be to expand charters as quickly as possible and make them as unaccountable as possible. That will cause as much harm as good. If we’re serious about improving schools, charters can only be one part of the solution – and a small one at that.

Lawrence Mishel  is president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.


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