Policy Analysis | April 2011

School Choice and Charter Schools

Jonathan Watts Hull

School choice has been at the center of the discussion of education reform across the region for several years. Charter schools received a prominent boost from the Obama administration during the Race to the Top process, where the selection scoring criteria afforded more potential points for support for charter schools than any other single category with the exception of securing local support. This policy preference effectively shut out the 10 states without charter laws (including Alabama, Kentucky and West Virginia) from the $4.35 billion fund.
Across the region, several states have been reviewing their charter school legislation this legislative session. The Arkansas Legislature approved legislation to essentially eliminate the state's current 24-school cap on charter schools by raising the limit by five schools whenever the number of open-enrollment charter schools in the state is within two slots of reaching that cap. North Carolina Senate has approved legislation (currently in the House) that would eliminate that state's 100-school cap on charter schools as well as make changes to the selection board and expands the amount of public funding available to them. Similar legislative action in Tennessee would eliminate that state's 90-school cap and provides for open enrollment within the charter's district. Florida's Senate Bill 1546 allows for more charter schools to be established by universities (the state already has 450 charter schools serving 150,000 students, but for every student enrolled, two are turned away), and creates a "high performing charter school" designation which releases the schools from certain regulatory requirements and increases the hurdles for local school systems to deny charter applications for schools promoted by such charter school systems. Legislation in Texas would give charter schools access to construction funds and incrementally lift the state's current 215-school cap.

Charter schools were in the news for other reasons this week as well. A report issued by researchers at Western Michigan University and the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education raised concerns about the sustainability and portability of the much-touted success of the nation's largest charter operator, the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, Schools. Specifically, the report found that, while charter schools may not receive as much public money per pupil as traditional schools (due to charters generally not serving special needs populations as traditional public schools do), the KIPP schools' ability to access private resources more than makes up the difference, resulting in, according to the authors, a $6,500 per pupil funding advantage for the private charter operator. Moreover, the report notes that KIPP experiences a high attrition rate among its participants, with students departing their schools (which most often serve grades 5-8) for traditional public schools at a rate of perhaps as much as 15 percent each year. The report does not dispute the program's general effectiveness, which has been shown to have had genuinely impressive results, particularly with improving educational outcomes for low-income and minority pupils. The authors question, however, the replicability of the KIPP model to traditional schools because of the selectivity of entry and exit and financial advantages the schools offer. KIPP, for its part, disputes the reports' findings, citing shortcomings in the methodology of the report.

The charter school movement in the United States has matured in recent years into an established component of the educational landscape, if unevenly so. What this means for charter schools is a shift from conventional advocacy to a review of effectiveness and transferability that was central to the argument for promoting innovation and experimentation in schools when these models first were advanced. The idea that competition would spur improvements at traditional schools and that the innovative lessons learned through charters would inform improved educational policy and practice across the system has been a chief feature of charter school advocacy. To date, only a handful of research provides particularly rigorous comparison of school performance, including a 2009 report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (the principal author of which will be on a panel at the SLC Annual Meeting this summer). That 16-state report found that 17 percent of charter schools outperformed similar traditional schools in terms of student achievement, nearly half performed on par with traditional schools, and 37 percent performed worse.

As far as charter school innovations working their way into traditional schools, it is difficult to assess the degree to which competition is spurring innovation. For practical purposes, no research exists on the subject. In part, this is due to timing. Charter schools have reached the critical mass to provide differentiated information on successful strategies in the midst of a catastrophic economic crisis, diminishing the resources available to catalog, disseminate, and adopt innovations. Moreover, there remains an suspcion between traditional and charter schools that has proven exceedingly difficult to bridge. Overcoming these barriers would seem to be necessary, however, if the benefits of these schools are to be transferred to the 97 percent of public school students still enrolled in traditional schools.