The evidence for charter schools in America has strengthened
meGREAT SCHOOLS is hard Evidence of success or failure can take ten years to gather. What works in one place may fail in another. This explains why school reformers are excited about an authoritative study from Stanford University that shows that charter schools really help children learn. That should settle an argument about how to organize America’s schools that has raged for 30 years.
The theory behind charters is that schools should be freed from the bureaucracy of the public school system and be able to hire and fire teachers based on merit. If they have these freedoms and are held accountable, the benefits will manifest in better results. That idea drew Republican support, but was controversial on the left. Although technocratic Democrats, such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, supported charters, teacher unions opposed them, arguing that they diverted resources from other public schools. When contracts were successful, the unions said, it was simply because they attracted the brightest pupils or the most motivated parents.
Although detailed studies were encouraging, the extensive evidence for contracts was disappointing. In 2009 the Stanford group published an influential study showing that their students did slightly worse in math and reading than students in regular public schools. In 2013 the study was updated and the team found that charter pupils did better in reading and worse in math. Partly as a result, the unions won the argument on the left. When he was running for office in 2020, Joe Biden described himself as “not a charter school fan”. At the same time, the right has turned away from charters and settled instead on “wookeness” and giving parents vouchers so they have more choice about where their children go to school.
Despite all this, recruitment networks have quietly expanded and experimented. Although some have failed (deservedly so), more have succeeded. The latest study, from the Stanford Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, compared 1.9m charter school students with a control sample in 2014-19. They found in math that the average charter student progressed by six days more per year compared to one in a traditional public school, and by 16 days in reading. Over time, that adds up to a big difference.
Furthermore, these averages hide important results. Contracts do much better in cities and with Hispanic and African-American students. Urban charters improved their students by nearly a month each year in reading and math compared to the control group. Black and Hispanic students did “significantly” better on these measures than their peers at traditional public schools. These are the very children the Democratic Party says they especially want to help.
And the researchers rejected the idea that this was achieved by removing motivated pupils or parents. If anything, charter schools admit students who do worse than their public school peers.
The Stanford study also points to something bigger. Since the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions and companies began supporting diversity, equity and inclusion programs, Democrats have become unsure of how to address the differences. race they focused on in 2020. was to attack achievement gaps on standardized tests and gifted and talented programs. That was not popular, and left the underlying problem unsolved.
America would do more to reduce racial disparities by pursuing race-blind policies that focus on those who need help the most. That sounds like a paradox, but it’s not. Just as tax credits for poor families reduce racial disparities in income, so do charter schools in big cities for reading and math. Republicans should renew their commitment to renewable labor contracts. Mr. Biden should tell his education secretary that he now loves charter schools. And he should start helping them succeed. ■