What are Charter Schools?
Charter schools are non-selective ‘public schools’ (American state schools) which are free from many of the regulations that apply to traditional schools. The charter is an agreement that sets out the schools mission, goals, and methods. Most charters are given for 3-5 years – if by that time the school has not performed, or has not been administratively competent, the charter will not be renewed.
This means charters are accountable to the parents that attend them, the taxpayer, and the state. And they’re accountable for the right things - not whether they’ve filled in the right forms or ticked the right boxes, but whether they have provided a good education for their pupils.
History of Charter Schools
In the 1970s, an educator in Massachusetts – Ray Budde – suggested that small groups of teachers be given ‘charters’ by their local school authority to explore new approaches to schooling. By 2002 40 states were allowing charter schools to be created. Charter schools can be run by charities, teachers, groups of parents and in some cases companies.
Who runs Charter Schools?
There are three types of people who usually run charter schools:
- Groups of parents, teachers or community members
- Large charities, philanthropists or businesses
- Existing schools that want to become charter schools because of the flexibility it gives them
Support for Charter Schools?
Charter schools have gained support from across the political spectrum. Most recently President Barack Obama has pledged to support charter schools, and double their funding.
Are Charter Schools popular?
They are increasingly popular – there are 365,000 parents on charter school waiting lists. Only artificial restrictions by local governments prevent new charter schools opening to meet this need.
Do Charter Schools work?
There is increasing evidence that charter schools improve attainment, particularly for the poorest children. Professors at Harvard, Stanford and MIT have carried out evaluations of charter schools and found that they improve attainment.
Some people claim that charter schools succeed because only motivated parents apply – they ‘cream-skim’. Lottery studies have shown this is untrue.
What is a lottery study?
When charter schools are oversubscribed, they have a random lottery for pupils. Economists have compared the children who got in through the lottery to those that didn’t. Therefore all pupils studied, whether they went to a charter school or not, had parents who chose to apply. Those children are also matched by race, ethnicity, gender, poverty, limited English, and disability. As an author of one of these studies pointed out, 'this is a true apples-to-apples comparison'.
The results from New York charter schools have been extraordinary, as a recent “lottery study” showed. The latest lottery study of New York charter schools is the most comprehensive ever to have been done on charter school students. Professor Caroline Hoxby, at Stanford University, found that:
- Charter schools enormously increase attainment.
- Pupils who enter charter schools at the age of 8 will, by the time they are 14, score 30 points more highly on Maths tests than if they had applied for a charter school but not got in. Scarsdale, one of the most affluent suburbs in New York, typically has pupils scoring 35 points higher than pupils in Harlem. So this is 86 per cent of the attainment gap between the wealthiest and poorest areas in New York. In English, students gain 23 points by going to charter schools, two thirds of the attainment gap.
- The longer pupils are in charter schools, the better they do.
- A student who attends a charter school is 7 per cent more likely to get a Regents (high school) diploma for every year they are in the charter school. So three years in a charter means they are 21 per cent more likely to get a diploma than if they had attended a public school.
- Charter schools help the poor.
- The median income of families in charter schools is 30 per cent lower than in New York as a whole.
- Ethnic minorities, who have historically been failed, disproportionately attend charter schools.
- Charter school neighbourhoods are 75 per cent more black than across New York City as a whole. They are 30 per cent more Hispanic.
Professor Josh Angrist from MIT has studied Boston’s public schools, pilot schools, and charter schools. Pilot schools have some flexibility over budgets, staffing and curricula but they are subject to collective pay bargaining and supervision by the local authority. Angrist did both a lottery study (as described above) and an “observational” study – comparing pupils of equivalent characteristics before they entered public, pilot or charter schools, and seeing how well they did later.
In both studies charter schools improved student performance:
- "The estimated impact on Math achievement for charter middle schools is extraordinarily large."
- While pilot schools showed a small improvement in English and the humanities, they lose ground at lower secondary level.
In a study of Chicago schools Caroline Hoxby (then Professor of Economics at Harvard and now at Stanford) and Jonah Rockoff (assistant Professor of Economics at Columbia Business School) found that:
- "Attending a charter school improves reading and Math scores by an amount that is both statistically and substantively significant" – five to six percentage points in Maths and five percentage points in reading.
- All of the charter schools studied were in 'neighbourhoods where the population is disproportionately minority and poor'.