Are charter schools all that different from regular public schools?
That’s one question scholars examined at a Sept. 28-29 conference in Nashville, Tenn., hosted by Vanderbilt University’s new National Center on School Choice.
Ron Zimmer of the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., said the issue of differences in operation and how those affect student achievement are often neglected in charter research.
California charters generally have more autonomy, more parental involvement, and a greater focus on particular student groups, but those factors don’t seem to translate into better achievement, a study he co-wrote found.
On average, the charters performed on a par with or slightly below the state’s regular public schools. Still, charters have posted comparable test results with fewer public resources, the study notes.
Ellen Goldring, a Vanderbilt professor, found the differences between charters and regular schools to be “quite inconsequential” for teachers’ level of focus on student learning, in a study she co-wrote on schools in four states.
“Choice-based systems do not in and of themselves seem to lead to more of [the] in-school conditions” that produce higher performance, that paper says.
Economist Michael Podgursky, from the University of Missouri-Columbia, said teacher pay and personnel policies are more market- and performance-based in charters, as well as in private schools.
As a result, he concludes in a study, charters recruit teachers with better academic credentials than those of their peers in regular public schools, as measured by the selectivity of the colleges they attended.
But Joe Nathan, a participant at the conference who heads the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, questioned the value of grouping charters en masse for comparisons.
“It’s a little bit like saying, ‘Please describe restaurants in Nashville or Minneapolis,’ ” he said in an interview. “Trying to lump charters together is pretty difficult, except that in pretty much every state … [they] are getting less money” than regular schools.
The conference papers will be published as a book next year.
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2006 edition of Education Week