What can the education world conclude about charter schools after their first couple of decades in existence? Something so simple that it's almost earth-shattering: The best ones benefit students enormously, especially those students who are low income, African American or still learning English. And the bad ones are far worse than if the students had stayed in their public schools. It's not hard to ensure that charter schools are good; it just takes a modicum of oversight and the political will that too many school boards have been unwilling to exercise.
Stanford University's Center for Research on Educational Outcomes recently released a sequel to its groundbreaking 2009 report that examined pairs of similar students at both charter and traditional schools and tracked their progress over the school year. The center already had demonstrated its ability to address this subject critically: Its earlier report had little good to say about charter schools, which are publicly funded but often run by private groups and freed from many regulations. In return, the schools are supposed to provide a superior education within a defined period of time; if they fail, they're supposed to close. The 2009 study found that charters were twice as likely to do worse by their students than regular schools. Opponents of charters seized on the study to press their view that charter schools were a failed experiment in privatization.
But four years later, the new study found that charter schools were doing better. Compared with traditional public schools, they were somewhat more likely to give students an academic boost than to hold them behind. Among California's more than 1,000 charter schools, which enroll 8% of its students, results were improved but mixed. Charter schools did slightly worse on math but significantly better in reading instruction. African American and low-income students were more likely to benefit from charter schools, as were English-language learners. These are among the groups that were often let down by the public education system before the era of school reform.
EDUCATION: California Schools Guide
The most compelling aspect of the new report isn't the results but how this improvement came about. It's not that existing charter schools improved much, the authors said. It's that some of the worst ones closed.
So it's not a coincidence that states with the most laissez-faire charter rules have had the most abysmal results. In Nevada, which until recently approved charters with near-abandon and then let them operate with little accountability, charter students lost more than half a year of learning each year than if they'd stayed in the regular public schools.
Not that California can afford to rest on any laurels. According to studies by the California Charter Schools Assn., a trade group that has lobbied to close academically failing charters, the state has particularly uneven charter schools. They clump disproportionately among both the best and worst schools. School districts, which are responsible for authorizing charter schools, are just as uneven when it comes to overseeing and closing low performers. They might have political connections to the operators, or be under pressure from wealthy donors or parents, who, no matter how bad the academic results, tend to be fierce supporters of their charter schools. The Stanford researchers noted that academic excellence is far down on the list of reasons parents choose charters, well below convenience and the respect with which they're treated. Those matter, but not nearly as much as whether students are learning.
Charter schools in Washington, D.C., which are held to higher accountability standards, give their students the equivalent of more than half a year of extra learning in math and 11 weeks in reading over traditional schools, the study found. And in a renewed push for more accountability, California's charter school association recently approved higher standards for its schools, and will recommend the closure of those that fall short. But the group is often ignored; in 2012, it recommended the closure of 10 low-performing charter schools, half of which were allowed to remain open anyway.
Just as higher standards for traditional public schools are a matter of law, California and all states should be making higher performance by charter schools mandatory.