AEI Report Shows It’s Tough to Compare Charter, Public Schools

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

A new report from the American Enterprise Institute considers the growth of charter schools in America since the first such school opened its doors 25 years ago, with more than 6,700 charters operational today in 42 states and the District of Columbia that enroll 2.5 million students.

With opposition to charter schools staying strong throughout the United States, calls for a moratorium on charter schools have grown louder as critics say they are unfair competitors with traditional public schools because they do not follow the same rules.  While supporters call charter schools “hope-filled, quality school alternatives for the nation’s most disadvantaged students,” opponents refer to them as unfair “public privates” that serve only the most advantaged students while taking away resources from the public school system.

Meanwhile, Nat Malkus, the author of “Differences on Balance: National Comparisons of Charter and Traditional Public Schools,” maintains that each side is oversimplifying the debate due to a lack of stable evidence available on the student selectivity within these schools.  While a number of studies have compared charter schools to traditional public schools (TPSs), they are limited in scope and do not generalize for charters across the country.  Although a broader scope can be found in national comparisons of all charter schools and all TPSs, a lack of subtle differences can make the results misleading.

Malkus takes national data from all public schools, both charter and traditional, in an effort to make a meaningful national comparison of student composition within these schools.  The findings show the majority of average differences between the two types of schools disappearing when charters were compared to their neighboring traditional public schools.  In fact, when comparing these schools, while some common conceptions held about the differences in the characteristics of charter school students were found to be correct, others were found to be wrong.

Malkus states that it is important to look at how TPSs are compared to charter schools, adding that comparing averages can cover any differences in charter enrollment versus neighboring TPSs.  Looking at the distribution of differences can show how often and by how much charter schools are different from their neighboring TPSs, many of which are not the same throughout the country.

Rather than focus on the question of how charters and TPSs differ, Malkus states that a better question to ask is why these schools are different.  Because charter schools are independent alternatives to traditional schools, Malkus says they should be evaluated as such.  He goes on to say that because these schools focus on offering an innovative and alternative option to students, they will attract a certain type of student.

Therefore, he says that the differences between charters and TPSs can be used by members of either side of the debate.  While those who support charters will say the student population in charter schools is different due to the programs offered, critics can say that the schools are being selective in who they enroll.

Malkus concludes by saying that additional research is needed on the topic, adding that “hopefully the methods and findings in this study will help create a more grounded and productive conversation about charter schools, in their local contexts and across the nation.”