Charter schools and the aspiring classes


There is significant research concluding that the ever-spreading charter schools in the U.S. are markedly improving pupils’ performance. Charter schools are free to attend, open to all children and publicly funded but independently run – the most similar comparison close to home being the Free Schools Programme in England. Since the first charter school law passed in Minnesota in 1991, almost seven thousand have opened with two and a half million children now being educated in a charter school. Previous studies have looked at lottery estimates. These compare how charter applicants perform when admitted to a charter school with how they would have performed had they attended a state school as the randomness ensures there are no systematic differences between those selected and not selected. But these studies do not account for pupils who never applied to a charter school and ended up attending one. Or for pupils attending charter schools for which demand is weak.

A new discussion paper (pdf) by Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Joshua D. Angrist, Peter D. Hull, and Parag A. Pathak does just this by testing the treatment effects of charter school attendance on middle-schoolers that are part of the new takeovers in New Orleans and Boston.

Takeovers see traditional state schools closed and then re-opened as charter schools. Students enrolled in schools designated for closure are eligible to be ‘grandfathered’ into the newly-opened charter schools. This means that they are guaranteed a place.

What this new paper finds is that highly disadvantaged students have experienced substantial gains in their achievement after enrolling in takeovers passively. It was previously believed that urban charter lottery applicants enjoy an unrepresentatively large benefit from charter attendance because they are either highly motivated or uniquely primed to benefit from the education these schools offer. Now we have both estimates from grandfathering and lottery-based research that weigh against this view.

These successes have also prompted similar approaches to be explored in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee despite the controversy caused by the proliferation of charter takeovers in New Orleans, Boston and elsewhere.

Charters Without Lotteries: Testing Takeovers in New Orleans and Boston is one report of what is becoming a substantial compilation of literature on why charter schools are working. They are some of the top-performing schools in the country with a higher percentage of charter school students accepted into a college or university. They are raising the bar of what is possible and should be expected in public education.

Teachers in charter schools are given the freedom to innovate and have more powers to explore the best practices. The schools can adopt themes and focus on specific fields like STEM subjects, performing arts or meeting the special needs, for example, of autistic children.

How charter schools are quickly extending choice to the poorest is exciting. And crucial. It is not widely recognised that choice already exists – but for the wealthiest. The most privileged can not only afford private schools but through the state school catchment system the housing market is the market for schools. An accepted way of boosting real estate is by improving schools as families want to buy houses in areas with good schools. School choice gives the poor a way to access the already existing market.

The disadvantaged are on the rise and benefiting more than ever from state education as a result of what is the best prominent educational movement in the U.S right now.