Stop Blaming Charters

Read this piece at City Journal


Stop Blaming Charters by Marcus A. Winters

Charter schools, critics have long maintained, exist to the detriment of traditional public schools. As the argument goes, charters—public schools, independently run (often by nonprofit organizations) and operating free of central district control but subject to government-accountability systems—siphon resources and the best students from local traditional public schools, degrading these schools for the students who remain in them. And charters harm the traditional public school system further by tossing back low-performing students.

“Both charters and vouchers drain away resources from the public schools, even as they leave the neediest, most expensive students to the public schools to educate,” Diane Ravitch writes in The New York Review of Books, in a representative formulation. “Competition from charters and vouchers does not improve public schools, which still enroll 94 percent of all students; it weakens them.” The pattern persists, Ravitch and other critics say, until it creates a death spiral for vulnerable, low-performing public schools.

Many charter opponents and others with an interest in perpetuating the current public school system find these arguments compelling. There’s one problem: empirical evidence points the other way.

Several extensive studies have measured the extent to which charter school expansion affects traditional public schools. Overall, the body of research suggests that competition from charters has a small positive effect on the performance of students remaining in traditional public schools. Choice helps many kids attend better schools, but it doesn’t seem to push traditional public schools to make dramatic improvements. At least so far, the results are not strong enough to support charter school proponents’ predictions that competition would force traditional public schools to improve substantially. And at least one study, by Scott Imberman of Michigan State University, found a negative impact from charter school competition. Imberman’s work is well designed and should be taken seriously, but even if he’s right, the magnitude of the negative effect is minimal and doesn’t justify the argument that charter school expansion destroys the ability of traditional public schools to educate their students.

Charter schools aren’t dumping their most difficult-to-educate kids on the traditional public school system, either, despite the prevalence of anecdotes to this effect. Analysis of enrollment data suggests that low-performing students are either as likely or slightly less likely to leave their school if it is a charter than if it is a traditional public school. Students with disabilities and those learning English as a second language are much less likely to exit charters than they are to depart traditional public schools. And prior academic achievement plays, at best, a trivial role in the probability that a student will enroll in a charter. The academic research, then, shows little reason to suspect that charter school expansion is harming, or will harm, students in traditional public schools.


Read the entire piece here at City Journal, originally appearing in the Autumn 2017 Issue.


Marcus Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an associate professor at Boston University. Follow him on Twitter here.