Where Are Charters the Answer?

There is an education crisis in America. Most people agree on this, but no one seems to agree on what to do about it. National conversations about education today necessarily include mention of charter schools. Charters are commonly seen as the answer to urban districts’ troubles. However, it appears that they are not the answer to education issues everywhere, and may not be the answer at all.

Focusing on middle and high school charters in Massachusetts, Angrist, Pathak, and Walters show differences in performance, student demographics, and ideology between urban and non-urban charter schools as well as between the charter schools that are oversubscribed – those that offer enrollment through a lottery system – versus those with open enrollment.

The authors find that there are very real differences in the performance outcomes of students attending non-urban and urban charter schools. While students who attend urban charter schools perform statistically far better than their peers who attend public schools, students who attend non-urban charter schools actually do no better than their peers who attend public schools. They may even do worse.

One possible explanation for the success of urban charters as compared to non-urban charters is the “No Excuses” ideology and discipline structure found in many urban charter schools. The “No Excuses” model requires higher student attendance rates, strict discipline procedures, longer school days, and higher per-pupil expenditures. (Notably, the latter two components are found to be insignificant in this study.)

Other explanations for the different effects of urban and non-urban charter schools include history – urban charters are older – student demographics, and reasons for attending a charter school. In non-urban districts the decision about which school to attend might be based more on peer influence than on school performance. The article even goes so far as to suggest that performance may have very little to do with the decision, as non-urban children are more likely to receive a good education regardless of their decision to choose to enroll in a public or charter school.

The authors find differences in performance between types of urban charter schools, as well.  National media might suggest that all urban charters have long waiting lists and a lottery day when families’ dreams are realized or shattered, but this is not the case. Plenty of urban charter schools fall into the non-lottery-based or under-subscribed category. And the type of urban charter school that a child attends matters. Angrist, Pathak, and Walters find that students who attended over-subscribed charter schools performed better than their peers who attended non-lottery-based urban charter schools.

The paper suggests that the answer to solving the education crisis in this country, or at least in Massachusetts, is not simply setting up a system built on charter schools: charter schools do not work all the time for all kids in all communities.

Jen Cowhy
Jen Cowhy is a Staff Writer for the Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy and an M.A. student at the School of Social Service Administration. She is interested in social policy, particularly in education policy, child and family policy, and community development.

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