Budget & Finance Opinion

The Secrets of Charter School Success

By Diane Ravitch — January 12, 2010 6 min read
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Dear Deborah,

In my new book, coming out in early March,* I devote a chapter to examining the research about choice from a historical perspective. Leave aside vouchers for now, and let’s look at charters, which are all the rage among the movers and shakers, including President Obama, Secretary Duncan, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and business leaders.

The charter idea was born in 1988, when two men—unknown to one another—converged on the idea. One was an education professor in Massachusetts named Ray Budde. The other was Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Both saw charter schools as a sort of R&D program to help public education. Neither saw charters as competition for public schools. They thought that the lessons learned from charters would help to solve difficult problems of curriculum and instruction, while shedding light on issues of organization and student motivation.

As we both know, the founders’ vision has been replaced by a totally different conception of charters. Now they are the leading edge of an effort to replace public schools and to oust teachers’ unions. Knowledgeable insiders have told me that more than 90 percent—possibly 98 percent—of the nation’s 5,000 charters do not have unions. Most are staffed by young teachers who work 50-60 hours a week and burn out after a few years.

There have been many research studies about charters and there will, of course, be more as they expand in number. Last fall, a study by Caroline Hoxby captured the media’s attention by claiming that students who spent nine years in a New York City charter school would close the achievement gap between those in the poorest and the wealthiest districts. Now comes another New York City charter study, this one by Margaret Raymond of CREDO at Stanford University. Last spring, CREDO released a national study showing that only 17 percent of charter schools had better results than traditional public schools; 83 percent of charters produced gains that were no different or significantly worse. This study sent shock waves through the charter school world.

But now Raymond has produced a study of NYC charters that presents a far brighter picture than her national study. In contrast to Hoxby’s NYC study, which seemed to suggest that any charter school was superior to any public school, Raymond’s study is positive, but nuanced. She matched students in charter schools with students in traditional public schools by gender, grade, race/ethnicity, free-reduced price lunch status (a proxy for poverty), prior year test score, grade repeater, special-education status, and English-language learner. Raymond found that 51 percent of NYC charters produced significant gains in math, but only 29 percent did so in reading.

Since Raymond’s 2009 national charter study was so bleak, charter advocates pounced on the NYC findings and celebrated. But a closer look should moderate the cheering.

Aside from the fact that Raymond’s study showed that 49 percent of charter schools produced no significant gains in math, and 71 percent produced no significant gains in reading, she also reported that students who were in special education or who were English-language learners experienced no significant gains or losses in charters. She also found that charter students who had been retained in grade made no gains in reading and were outperformed in math by their peers in traditional public schools.

Neither Hoxby nor Raymond—both brilliant economists and leaders in their field—factored in the contextual factors that affect whether students perform well on tests of reading and math.

Charters in NYC may get better results than charters nationally because many or most have rich sponsors, hedge-fund managers or philanthropists with deep pockets who donate millions of dollars to their schools, enabling them to have smaller classes and more resources than the local public schools. (Tom Toch noted in an article in the December/January Kappan that the SEED charter school in Washington, D.C., which has been hailed as a national model, spends $35,000 per student yearly.)

Another important factor in the success of New York City’s charters is that Chancellor Joel Klein has placed 70 of the city’s 99 charters in public school space, subsidizing the charters’ facilities, utilities, transportation, custodial services, food services, and whatever else is provided to the regular public school. This policy has ignited angry battles between the parents of charter school students and those at public schools that lose their computer room, their art room, their dance room, and classroom space to the favored charters. Parents and teachers in New York City public schools grumble about “academic apartheid” and “separate but equal” when they see the care and attention showered on charters located inside public schools that have long been neglected.

Then, too, most charters in New York City have lotteries for admission. The least informed parents never apply for a lottery, so the lottery acts as a screening mechanism. (Hoxby eliminated this factor by comparing students who won the lottery with students who lost it.) Thus, charters enroll few homeless students; there are some 50,000 homeless students in New York City’s public schools, but only about 100 are enrolled in charters. When charters admit special education students, they tend to be those with the mildest disabilities because charters are not equipped to meet the needs of those with extreme disabilities. In addition, charters are able to “counsel out” students who are “not a good fit,” who then return to the traditional public schools.

The United Federation of Teachers of New York City reported that charters serve less than 4 percent of English-language learners, compared with a citywide average of 14 percent; that less than 10 percent of charter students require special education, compared with a citywide average of 16 percent; that charters enroll fewer Hispanic or immigrant students than the regular public schools; and that while they have the same proportion of students receiving “free and reduced-price lunch,” they have about 10 percentage points fewer of students eligible for free lunch (that is, the poorest students). The gaps are even larger when charter schools are compared with their neighborhood public schools, rather than citywide averages.

As one considers studies like those of Hoxby and Raymond, it is important to bear in mind that students in charter schools and public schools are not on a level playing field. Those in charters attend school with small classes and other motivated students, while those in public schools attend schools in overcrowded classrooms with a full range of students, including those who left charters. Charters demonstrate that “peer effects” matter.

If charters are going to be the models for public education in the future, we may have to roll back many civil rights laws and court decisions that prevent schools from excluding or limiting certain types of students. Or, charter schools should be required to accept the same range of students who attend regular public schools. Or, in return for their unusual freedom, some of them might dedicate themselves to educating the neediest students instead of avoiding them.

With the Race to the Top, the Obama administration is pushing states to remove all limits on the number of charter schools. Is this a signal that the equity agenda of the past half-century is dead?


*The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books).

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.