It’s School Choice Week, which means that skeptics of charter schools have been out in full force. At AlterNet, Laurie Levy claims “[t]here are no data that support the idea that charter schools are superior to public schools.” A common talking point for choice skeptics, Levy walks readers through two studies with mixed results comparing charters to traditional public schools:
According to Data First, an initiative of the Center for Public Education, on math assessments 17% of kids in charter schools perform significantly better than their peers in public schools. But 37% perform significantly worse. For the rest (46%), scores were comparable. According to a national study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), “less than one hundredth of one percent (<0.01 percent) of the variation in test performance in reading is explainable by charter school enrollment.” Not exactly proof of a winning formula, no matter how you slice it.
While these results look pretty discouraging to charter schools at first glance, they’re ultimately deceptive because they’re only a snapshot in time. It’s absolutely true that at any given point, there are excellent charter schools (the 17%), there are mediocre charter schools (the 46%), and there are poor charter schools (the 37%). However, this wide landscape is not very interesting; after all, there are also excellent, mediocre, and poor public schools as well. In fact, just about every good or service in life ranges from excellent to mediocre to poor. The more important question for charter schools is whether they generally improve or stay the same quality over time.
Emerging evidence is already providing the answer, with two major studies released last year suggesting that, given time, poor charter schools exit the market and excellent ones continue to provide quality education. A Brookings Institution report tracking Arizona’s charter school performance between 2005 and 2012 found that charters that close are on average “significantly less effective in math, reading, and science than traditional and charter schools that remained open.” Similarly, a National Bureau of Economic Research report tracking Texas’ charter school performance between 2001 and 2011 found that “exits from the sector, improvement of existing charter schools, and positive selection of charter management organizations that open additional schools raised average charter school effectiveness over time relative to traditional public schools.”
It should come as little surprise that many charters underperform and ultimately fail considering the sheer enormity of the challenge of starting a school. Besides the seemingly endless bureaucratic hoops that teachers and administrators have to jump through to get approval for a school, they also have to recruit quality teachers willing to work for a modest income and maintain a space to suitably hold hundreds of children — all with a smaller budget of 28.4% or $3,814 less per student on average than the district school down the block.
Yet, the beauty of school choice reveals itself precisely when these charters fail. If a charter has to close its doors because of poor performance, the parents and their students have a litany of options — be them other charter schools to choose from or, if the state has a voucher program, perhaps a private school as well. Contrasting that with states and localities without school choice, the parents of a student in an underperforming district school often have no option but to watch their student’s education stagnate year after year.
Thus, state policy makers shouldn’t be so quick to judge the market in education because it is precisely that: a market. And like any market, there will be a wide variety in quality available within the education sector. But, given time, the invisible hand will nudge schools subject to competition to improve.