AEI Study Examines Charter School Diversity Nationwide


Two researchers at American Enterprise Institute have released a paper, Measuring Diversity in Charter School Offerings, in an effort to address the question of the diversity of charter school options across the country.

Michael Q. McShane, a research fellow in education policy studies at American Enterprise Institute (AEI), editor of New and Better Schools and author of Education and Opportunity, and Jenn Hatfield, a research assistant in education policy studies at AEI, found that charter schools themselves are diverse in structure. They found that there is an even split between general and specialized charter schools, with the most common types of specialized charters being “no-excuses” (strict discipline, high expectations) and “progressive” (project or inquiry-based) schools. The higher the percentage of black residents a city has, the larger the enrollment in no-excuses  schools, while poorer cities are more likely to have specialized charters. The researchers say the reasons for this may include that academic achievement is often the primary concern for low-income communities, which results in more no-excuses and STEM schools in poorer areas.

In wealthier communities, families have the benefit of looking for specialized options like international and foreign language schools. It may also be true that operators and authorizers wish to support established models over innovative models that are more difficult to implement, leading to easier replication of proven no-excuses models such as KIPP. Perhaps, say the authors, as more diverse schools demonstrate quality, the more diverse the larger pool of schools will become.

Charter schools are still a relatively new concept in education and public policy and are only a small part of the educational landscape, making it too soon to judge schools market diversity in some cities, but McShane and Hatfield note a variation in the charter market from city to city. The number and types of authorizors, the age and market share of the sector, and the demographics of the community are city-level factors that seem to relate to the diversity of charter school offerings.

The study identified charter schools in 17 cities chosen by using the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s charter school dashboard. They included all charters that operated in those cities in the 2012-13 school year – a total of 1,151 schools – which they studied to find each school’s mission, vision, educational philosophy, academic model, and curriculum. Then the schools were divided into the following specializations: no-excuses, progressive, academic credit recovery, classical, hybrid or online, purposefully diverse, single sex, STEM, arts, international/foreign language, military, vocational training, and public policy.

McShane and Hatfield say the broad purpose of charter schools is to offer families, who have traditionally had few options, the power to put their children in schools such as those that will prepare them for a career in science or train them in a foreign language. They add that requiring all schools to perform well across one set of metrics will likely limit the amount of diversity that will be seen.

There seems to be evidence that parents want more diversity and that the community itself needs to decide on the ideal mix of charter schools. One of the most interesting findings, according to the authors, was a substantial negative correlation between enrollment in STEM schools and median household income. The poorer the city, the larger the expected STEM enrollment. This could be because careers in STEM fields are almost guaranteed doorways into solid employment. Few would say that there is enough being done to prepare students, particularly low-income and minority young people in the STEM fields.

However, charter operators and authorizers are hesitant when serving low-income students because they do not want to “experiment” with children who already have so much stacked against them. Instead, they want to stick with established models and accepted practices such as no-excuses and STEM.

Hatfield and McShane conclude that support of the charter school movement are: rests on schools improving academic achievement by taking advantage of flexibility not offered in traditional public schools, and deregulation that will allow for more diverse schools than would otherwise be available.