Equity & Diversity

Key Data on Charter Achievement Missing as Policy Questions Mount

By Debra Viadero — November 29, 2005 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The nation’s charter schools appear to enroll low-income students and students with disabilities in proportions similar to those in their surrounding districts, according to a report released last week. But it’s still not clear, the report adds, whether they provide a better education.

Numbering more than 3,300 in 40 states and the District of Columbia, charter schools are public schools that are allowed to operate free of most bureaucratic constraints in return for improved student achievement.

The report, produced by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, located at the University of Washington in Seattle, comes at a critical juncture for the nearly 15-year-old movement.

Read “Hopes, Fears, and Reality: A Balanced Look at American Charter Schools in 2005", available from the National Charter School Research Project.

With 448 charter schools opened in the 2004-05 school year, the movement grew faster last year than it has in any of the previous four years. But in at least 20 states, the largely start-up schools are bumping up against caps put in place to control their growth.

Scholars and charter school advocates are divided, according to the report, over whether future growth of the schools should come at the grassroots level or states should aim for critical masses of charters that could exert competitive pressure on regular school systems.

“It really does seem to me that charter schools have hit an important point in their development, and it’s time for a more sophisticated approach to research and policy,” said Robin J. Lake, the associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. She co-edited the report with the center’s director, Paul T. Hill. The findings were set to be released on Nov. 21 at a forum held by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Aiming for Neutrality

Funded by a consortium of foundations convened by the Washington, D.C.-based Philanthropy Roundtable, the report is the first of what will be a series of annual reports and other studies tracking the charter movement. The series aims to sound a neutral voice in a debate that has grown more polarized in recent years—a task the first report largely accomplished, some experts said.

“I think what this report will do is reduce some of the simplistic views people have come to develop about charter schools,” said Jane Hannaway, the director of the Urban Institute Education Policy Center.

For example, on the issue of schools’ demographic makeup, the report notes that charters enroll higher percentages of low-income students and students from minority groups than do the regular public schools in the states where they operate.

Who Goes to Charter Schools?

Researchers compared the proportions of students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches in charter and district-run schools.


*Numbers represent percentage of students

SOURCE: National Charter School Research Project, 2005

Nationally, for instance, 58 percent of charter students are members of racial or ethnic minorities, compared with 41 percent for regular public schools in the same states. But, the report adds, that pattern reflects the fact that the largest proportion of charter schools—30.5 percent overall—are in large cities.

When compared with regular public schools in the same districts—a better comparison, the editors say—charters enroll nearly the same proportions of students in both categories. Getting the numbers right is important because critics often contend that charter schools “cream” the easiest-to-teach students from the regular public school system.

However, while the report goes beyond some previous studies to disentangle demographic questions, the authors need to go a step further, argued Gary J. Miron, an education professor from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo who has also studied charter schools.

“In a lot of states, you have a number of schools that are almost exclusively minority or exclusively white,” said Mr. Miron, who reviewed the study. “Many of the states I’ve worked in have charter schools contributing to resegregation.”

Mr. Miron’s criticism highlights a recurring theme of the 83-page report: On most debates surrounding the charter movement, more and better research is still needed. For instance, many states lack data on the numbers of English-language learners in charter schools, which could further flesh out the demographic picture.

Data Elusive

Many states also lack the sophisticated student-tracking systems that might let experts determine whether students learn more in charter schools than they would otherwise, another big question in the policy debates that surround charter schools.

It’s still impossible to tell whether student achievement improves in charter schools, the report concludes, despite a spate of recent studies that have portrayed the academic progress of charter school students as either better or worse than that of their counterparts in regular public schools.

“For the beginning of a new area of scientific inquiry, the research is pretty good,” said Mr. Hill. “For making high-stakes policy decisions, it’s not good at all.”

Credible research into the subject is further complicated, he said, by the variation among states in the rules governing charter school operations, the numbers of charter schools allowed, and the kinds of entities that oversee them.

“ ‘Charter school’ is a label that we’ve assigned to 41 quite different phenomenon,” Mr. Hill said.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Personalized Learning Webinar
No Time to Waste: Individualized Instruction Will Drive Change
Targeted support and intervention can boost student achievement. Join us to explore tutoring’s role in accelerating the turnaround. 
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Social-Emotional Learning: Making It Meaningful
Join us for this event with educators and experts on the damage the pandemic did to academic and social and emotional well-being.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Privacy & Security Webinar
K-12 Cybersecurity in the Real World: Lessons Learned & How to Protect Your School
Gain an expert understanding of how school districts can improve their cyber resilience and get ahead of cybersecurity challenges and threats.
Content provided by Microsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Opinion 3 Reasons Your District Needs a Theory of Change for Equity Work
Even as equity and anti-racism efforts have accelerated, many equity leaders are missing this essential tool, writes a researcher.
Terrance L. Green
4 min read
House surrounded by trees under dark night sky. Movement of stars around pole star on north hemisphere. Star trails on night sky, long exposure composition
Equity & Diversity Researchers Search for Hidden Graves at Native American Boarding Schools
The bodies of more than 80 Native American children are buried at the former Genoa Indian Industrial School in central Nebraska.
6 min read
A member of a team affiliated with the National Park Service uses ground-penetrating radar in hopes of detecting what is beneath the soil while searching for over 80 Native American children buried at the former Genoa Indian Industrial School, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, in Genoa, Neb. For decades the location of the student cemetery has been a mystery, lost over time after the school closed in 1931 and memories faded of the once-busy campus that sprawled over 640 acres in the tiny community of Genoa.
A researcher uses ground-penetrating radar last month to search for more than 80 Native American children buried at the site of the former Genoa Indian Industrial School in Genoa, Neb.
Charlie Neibergall/AP
Equity & Diversity More States Push Schools to Drop Native American Mascots
At states' urging, schools will drop Native American mascots, citing the harm of racist stereotypes. The changes bring logistical and political challenges.
6 min read
A high school football player in a blue helmet with an orange arrow on it tackles a player in a white and green uniform.
A player from the Westlake High School Warriors in Thousand Oaks, Calif., plays football in a helmet with an arrowhead logo. California has banned only certain Native American-themed mascots, but other states have passed broader restrictions.
Alex Gallardo/AP