Education Opinion

Are NYC Charter Schools an Anomaly?

By Walt Gardner — December 13, 2013 1 min read
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With 183 charter schools serving 70,000 students, New York City is being closely watched as a harbinger because mayor-elect Bill de Blasio is seen as hostile to their very existence (“Will de Blasio Choke Charters?” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 12). I’ve always had trouble trying to find logic in the thinking of residents there, but on this particular issue, I think I understand their concern.

For the second time in three years, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that the “typical New York City charter school student learns more in a year in reading and math than his or her peers in their neighborhood district schools” (“Better Charter Schools in New York City,” The New York Times, Feb. 22). The finding contrasted with the center’s conclusion in 2009 that only 17 percent of charters nationwide offered a better education based on test scores. In other words, charter schools in New York City are an exception. That’s one reason there is a waiting list of 53,000 students.

But before depicting de Blasio as a villain, I think it’s extremely important to bear in mind why charter schools in New York City and - by extension - elsewhere sometimes are able to post admittedly impressive results. I explained the reasons in a letter to the editor. Oversubscribed charter schools - at least in NYC - must use a lottery for admission, while traditional public schools by law have to enroll all students. As a result, self-selection contaminates results. Researchers try to control for this factor by looking at students who won the lottery against those who did not. In other words, they focus on similarly motivated students. But this strategy can be applied only to schools that are popular enough to require a lottery and that keep accurate records (“Inside the World of Charter Schools, The New York Times, Mar. 3).

It’s too soon to know what the future of charter schools will look like under de Blasio. He is on record as saying they should pay rent for occupying public space. But that alone does not mean they are slated for extinction. Parental demand will ultimately determine their fate. However, remember that parents don’t always base their choice on academics alone. Social, logistic and holistic considerations also come into play.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.