Parents care not only about the quality of education offered but also the mix of children in a school. How does the premise that “More choice should produce a better educational fit between what parents want for their children and ultimately lead to better educational outcomes” work out over time?
This study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research looks at data from North Carolina. We all need to understand the consequences of choice.
A federally funded study of charters in North Carolina analyzed whether charters serve the needs of children who are not well served by traditional public schools. The researchers compared the achievement gains of students in charters with comparable students in traditional public schools. Then, they provided a rationale for the results.
The study provides a historical context based on the history of ‘freedom’ academies that were created in the 60’s in response to desegregation. There were both political and racial components. Democrats resisted charters but then relented as Republicans in the State turned to vouchers for private schools. Vouchers were viewed by many Democrats as a more harmful choice.
The authors made a distinction between choice programs in northern and southern states. Choice in New England, for example, was rationalized as a means to curb unions and help disadvantage students while in southern states, arguments centered on race. In North Carolina, charters were to give preference to at risk students from low income families, but their enrollments were to reasonably reflect the communities in which they were located.
In the beginning, black students were over represented in the charter sector. As the number of charters grew, the mix of students changed. By 2012, the proportion of white students enrolled in traditional public schools declined from 64.1 to 53% and increased in charters. Charters with a high proportion of minority students, moreover, closed at a higher rate than those who served primarily white students. In addition, a greater percentage of college educated parents of white students enrolled students in charters than in public schools. Charters are differentiated by those that serve primarily low income minority students and those that serve children from higher socio economic families.
By 2012, nearly half of white students were enrolled in charters with fewer than 20% minority children. Students leaving public schools tended to enroll in charters with a higher percentage of students like themselves. Black students left racially mixed public schools for charters that had mostly black students and vice versa.
The return rate of students to charters each year is used as a proxy for parental satisfaction. Overall, predominately white charter schools retain students at a higher rate than do predominately black charters. Charters also retain students at a higher rate than traditional public schools.
Initially students in charters performed less well than those in public schools, but the trend reversed over time as more higher incomes were represented. Achievement gains for charters exceeded those for comparable public schools by 2012. The study offers two explanations: charter school closures and student ability. Charters that closed had lower achievement gains than those that remained open over time. After 2006, new charter schools had to delay opening for a year in order for the state to evaluate their readiness to open.
Evidence that charters are attracting a higher proportion of able students than those in public schools is reported. The average scores of new students entering charter schools exceeded their peers in public schools. Their absentee rate was also lower. When achievement gains for charter school students are compared from year to year, their gain is slightly negative, but not significantly different from comparable students in traditional public schools. Thus, charters appear to be doing better than public schools, but the authors conclude that higher scores are due not to charter school programs but to the fact they are attracting students with high scores from public schools.
Future research goals include studies of the financial impact of charters on public schools that examine not only the loss of student revenue needed to maintain adequate program and facility funding, but also increased public school costs due to a higher proportion of students who require more services. A second study will identify charter governing board members and whether they have a business rather than an educational focus.
The charter landscape in North Carolina is changing. School populations are becoming more segmented. White middle class parents tend to be most satisfied with charters. Their more able children are becoming a greater proportion of the charter enrollment. Charter achievement scores are generally higher than in public schools, but the students enter with higher scores. Once enrolled, their achievement is no greater than other traditional public school students. Thus, the choices more advantaged families make can have adverse affects on everyone else.