Charter Schools: A Primer

Stakeholders in education include virtually everyone in a democracy—students, parents, teachers, politicians, business leaders, the media, and more.

Historically, public education in the U.S. has experienced two continual popular narratives: (1) public schools are failing, and (2) [insert reform here] is needed to overhaul schools for (a) international competitiveness and (b) a stronger workforce.

Recently, charter schools have seen a significant rise in advocacy and implementation as a complex mechanism for reform. Along with that rise has come a new wave of research on the effectiveness of those charter schools, particularly as they compare with traditional public schools (TPS).

Most stakeholders in education receive their information about charter schools from the media; thus, when the media covers the charter school debate and research,the influence of those media accounts can be disproportional to the quality.

For example, The Post and Courier(Charleston, SC) has taken a strong position for charter schools in SC: “But there is one area where the state has taken bold steps to improve education: charter schools.” However, an analysis of charter schools in SC that compares state report card data between those charter schools and  TPS using the state metric of “Schools with Students Like Ours” revealed in 2012:

“Charter schools in SC have produced outcomes below and occasionally typical of outcomes of public schools; thus, claims of exceptional outcomes for charter schools in SC are unsupported by the data (3/63 ABOVE Typical, 17/63 Typical, and 33/63 BELOW Typical).” [correction: the demoninator should be 53]

Since the pattern of advocacy and implementation of charter schools includes a significant amount of support from political leaders, business leaders, the media, and advocates (such as charter-based organizations and think tanks), most stakeholders need a clear and accurate primer addressing what we currently know about charter school effectiveness, and that must be guided by this caution from Matthew Di Carlo:

“There’s a constant barrage of data, reports and papers flying around, and sifting through it with a quality filter, as well as synthesizing large bodies of usually mixed evidence into policy conclusions, are massive challenges. Moreover, we all bring our pre-existing beliefs, as well as other differences, to the table. There are no easy solutions here.

“But, one useful first step, at least in education, would be to stop pointing fingers and acknowledge two things. First, neither ‘side’ has anything resembling a monopoly on the misuse of evidence. And, second, such misuse has zero power if enough people can identify it as such.”

One overarching point needs to be made about the charter school debate first. Charter advocacy and criticism both too often fail in their use of data, as Di Carlo warns, but both also make another mistake, ignoring the evidence base entirely.

What, then, is the current state of evidence on charter school effectiveness? [1] And, how do charter schools address, or not, clearly identified problems and goals of TPS—including what questions and concerns remain in the context of what the evidence suggests about charter school effectiveness?

• Research has repeatedly shown that measurable outcomes (test scores, graduation rates, college admissions rates, etc.) from charter schools produce about the same range of quality as TPS (and private schools) and that the type of school structure (charter v. TPS) appears not to be a determining factor in the outcomes with the demographics of the students and the community remaining powerful correlations with those outcomes.

• Claims of “miracle” schools fail to stand up under close scrutiny, but even if outliers exist in charter schools, outliers exist in TPS and private schools as well, and thus, outliers may prove to be ineffective models for scaling any success.

• Charter schools do not appear to address and often seem to mirror or increase key problems with TPS: (a) teacher assignment (high-needs students assigned to inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers), (b) class and racial segregation, (c) selectivity and attrition of students, (d) teacher turnover and retention ["churn"], (e) concerns about excluding the most difficult sub-categories of high-needs students [English language learners, special needs students, highest-poverty students, students from home that cannot or will not pursue choices].

• Charter school student outcomes are often complicated by issues of selectivity, attrition, and scalability.

• Some charter school ideologies—notably “no excuses” policies—trigger concerns about classism and racism that are rarely weighed against data.

• Charter schools (along with school choice and home schooling) introduce problems concerning athletic participation as well as a wide range of extracurricular participation in TPS.

• Charter schools also complicate already stressed and controversial TPS funding policies and agendas.

The charter school debate seems to warrant a similar caution that many other reforms now deserve, including VAM-style teacher evaluation. As Di Carlo explains:

“As discussed in a previous post, there is a fairly well-developed body of evidence showing that charter and regular public schools vary widely in their impacts on achievement growth. This research finds that, on the whole, there is usually not much of a difference between them, and when there are differences, they tend to be very modest. In other words, there is nothing about ‘charterness‘ that leads to strong results.”

With commitments to charter schools, many policy makers are moving too quickly and failing to examine the evidence so far along with weighing that evidence against clearly defined problems with TPS and specifically identified goals for the reforms.


[1] A number of studies inform the list above. Readers are invited to examine a wide array of research and reports listed below, but also urged to search for new evidence:

Charter Schools Not the Answer, Especially if We Fail to Identify the Question, P. L. Thomas

Comparing Teacher Turnover In Charter And Regular Public Schools, Matthew Di Carlo

Charter Schools posts at The Shanker Blog

Search “charter schools” at NEPC

Charter Schools posts at School Finance 101 (Bruce Baker)

Charter Schools research at NCSPE

Search “charter schools” at EPAA

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate? (Springer, 2009) co-authored with Renita Schmidt. He maintains a blog addressing the role of poverty in education: His teaching and scholarship focus on literacy and the impact of poverty on education, as well as confronting the political dynamics influencing public education in the U.S. His work can be followed at