The charter school built-in advantage

A recent Harvard study found that Black students in particular made far better gains in charter schools than in traditional public schools (“Joe Biden must stand up for charter schools, New York Daily News, Dec. 3).  Other studies have reported similar results, increasing the call for greater parental choice.

Readers of this column know that I support parental choice, including charter schools.  But I hasten to point out that the impressive results posted by the latter come as no surprise.  The reality is that charter schools play by a completely different set of rules than other public schools.  They can admit whomever they want and can counsel out those who underperform for one reason or another.

I submit that charter schools are not intrinsically superior.  Furthermore, I believe that if traditional public schools were allowed to operate like charters, there would be virtually no difference in outcomes.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “The charter school built-in advantage”

  1. As always, the gold standard experiment would involve a charter taking over and operating a low-SES inner-city neighborhood school while enrolling all the students from the neighborhood school and only those students.

    To my knowledge, this has only happened once.

    About 10 years ago, KIPP took over and operated a low-SES Denver middle school, enrolling all the students and only those students. KIPP ran the school for a few years. The test scores stayed low. KIPP pulled the plug.

    To my knowledge, KIPP has not rerun this experiment anywhere else. Nor has any of the other large charter chains.

    The charters know that, if they have to teach exactly the same mix of students as the low-SES inner-city neighborhood public schools, they will get the same — or worse — results as the neighborhood public schools.

    The charters’ huge advantage over the low-SES inner-city neighborhood public schools is that none of the charters’ students are children of extremely unconcerned/dysfunctional parents, only a few of the charters’ students are children of unconcerned/dysfunctional parents, and most of the charters’ students are children of concerned/functional parents. Although the low-SES inner-city neighborhood public schools enroll some children of concerned/functional parents, they also enroll all of the children of the extremely unconcerned/dysfunctional parents and most of the children of the unconcerned/dysfunctional parents.

    As you note, the charters sometimes have some control over who they admit from among the applicants and usually have the ability to expel or counsel-out screw-up students. These factors account for some of the charters’ advantage re student body characteristics. But the main factor giving the charters their huge advantage re student body characteristics is the fact that charters all enroll via parental application rather than geographical default. In order for Student X to enroll in a charter, X’s parents have to learn about the charter and have to successfully complete the application process, This passively filters out the children of the extremely unconcerned/dysfunctional parents (none of whom can get it together sufficiently to accomplish these steps) and passively filters out most of the children of the unconcerned/dysfunctional parents (only a small number of whom can get it together sufficiently to accomplish these steps). And, charters enjoy an additional passive filter that tends to limit enrollment to children of the concerned/functional parents — that is, most charters require that parents provide daily transportation to/from the charter, a requirement that would screen out the children of parents who are too unconcerned/dysfunctional to provide that daily transportation.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: I agree that the biggest advantage that charters have is that enrollment is only by parental choice. Traditional public schools must enroll all who show up at their doors regardless of motivation or ability.

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