School Choice & Charters

A Closer Look at States’ Charter School Performance

By Kevin Connors — June 26, 2013 4 min read
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A newly published examination of charter schools not only offers insights on the nationwide performance of the sector, but also provides a picture of charters’ standing in individual states—which varies enormously.

While initial reaction to the study, published by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, tended to focus on overall, nationwide results, the 92-page analysis also presents a comparison of charter and regular public schools’ performance in 27 states, and explores performance among various sub-groups of students, information that will be dissected by educators, researchers, and policymakers for a long time to come.

The Stanford study offers a number of conclusions about the charter school landscape nationally and for individual states:

Several factors influence charter performance.

Nationwide, charter school students made eight additional days of learning gains in reading, and approximately the same amount of gains in math, compared to their peers in traditional public schools. However, these gains vary drastically across states. For example, Rhode Island charter students experience 108 more days of math learning, while Nevada experiences 137 fewer. These differences can be partly attributed to the geographic targeting of charter schools (for example, some states only allow charters to open in certain high-need communities), overall differences in state education quality, and the authorization process of charters, the Stanford researchers say.

Charter school performance varies significantly by state.

There are 11 states where charter school performance outpaced public school growth in both reading and math: the District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, upstate New York (not including New York City, which was considered its own state in the study), Rhode Island, and Tennessee. But there are also eight more states where charter performance underperformed public schools in both categories: Arizona, Arkansas, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah. The rest have mixed results. The table below shows the number of “Reading Days of Learning” and “Math Days of Learning,” with the columns indicating the learning gains/losses for charters compared to their state’s counterparts in traditional public schools.

The majority of charters serve urban communities.

As the quality of education one receives from a charter school varies from state to state, so do the demographics of the charter student population. Overall, 56 percent of all charter students live in urban areas, as seen in the pie graph below—perhaps not surprising, given charters’ initial growth and evolution primarily in cities.

Within each state, however, charter school population varies widely, sometimes because of the state’s regulations for geographic targeting. Some states only permit charter schools in high-need areas (e.g. urban areas with large numbers of academically struggling districts) while others allow charters to freely choose their locations. The difference in charter demographics across states is significant. For example, the proportion of black students ranges from less than one percent in Utah to more than 93 percent in the District of Columbia. The table below describes charter student profiles by state.

The magnitude of charter performance depends partly on the quality of existing public schools.

According to the center, merely tracking charter growth is not enough. Rather, a sophisticated analysis must “place that performance in the relative context of the state’s overall education quality.”

With this higher level of analysis, it becomes evident that the magnitude of learning gains and losses depends on the quality of the existing public schools. Put simply, the report says, 15 more days of reading learning may not matter much in a high-achieving state, but in a low-achieving one, 15 additional days can potentially change the academic trajectory of a child’s life.

To put charter school growth into context, the researchers plotted charter growth against state performance on the 4th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test that tracks student performance nationally and offers comparisons across states. Essentially, these charts indicate how well a state performed on the NAEP and also how much its charters are growing compared to traditional public schools. A state in the lower right quadrant, for example, has below-average NAEP scores in reading but positive charter school growth.

The willingness to close charters varies greatly across states.

The report made several notes about the number of charter closings in the 16 states that participated in the center’s original 2009 study, claiming that this resulted in improved overall achievement for charters. It also believes that closing underperforming charters is a necessary strategy moving forward. The following table lists the percent of charter school closures since 2009 for each state.

Though closing schools is often disruptive, the study’s authors argue that policymakers need to be willing to take that step if they want to improve the sector’s overall quality.

“There is no doubt that care is needed in how closures are handled,” the report states. “But equally obvious is that allowing the closure option to rest unexercised will lead to atrophy of what we have come to view as the singular and unique feature of charter schools. Much like representative democracy, it is critical that when needed, people can ‘throw the rascals out.’”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.