Americans have worried about the performance of our public schools for decades, and the charter school movement arose during the 1990s when some education reformers decided that government regulations kept traditional public schools from changing their policies and curriculums, streamlining their budgets, and holding themselves accountable for student performance. While traditional public schools operate under the control of local school boards, charter schools receive renewable contracts from cities, states, and nonprofits and usually stay open if their students meet state standards and pass national standardized tests at acceptable rates. Since the first charter schools opened thirty years ago, their visibility and popularity have increased dramatically; between 2000-2001 and 2015-2016, the number of students who attend charter schools nationwide has increased from 400,000 students to 2.9 million, and this population has grown about 10-15% every year since the mid-2000s. While advocates of charter schools claim that these programs save money and improve student outcomes compared with traditional public schools, the opponents of the charter movement question the academic benefits of charter schools and underscore how much stress charters place upon local school districts. Charter schools still only work with about 5-6% of all American students, but Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos clearly believes charter schools and voucher programs represent the future of American education. We must accordingly examine how well charter schools perform compared with public schools and whether their potential drawbacks make them a distraction from more-useful education reforms.
The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University released its second comprehensive study comparing charter schools and traditional public schools with similar demographics in 2013, and the study produced three main results: 1) Charter schools have improved significantly since the first CREDO study from 2009. 2) Traditional public schools and charter schools provide nearly the same amount of academic growth for their students. 3) Charter schools have the most success with poor African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, English-Language Learners, and students from all backgrounds who need special education services. When CREDO published its 2009 study, traditional public schools outperformed charter schools for Math and Reading across every social, economic, and racial category. The students who attended charter schools received the equivalent of seven fewer days of Reading instruction and twenty-two fewer days of Math instruction than their traditional public school counterparts. The 2013 study, however, concluded that students from charter schools had eight more days of Reading growth than students from traditional public schools and the same average Math performance. Overall, charters and traditional public schools currently provide about the same quality of education for their students, but charter schools have disproportionate benefits for demographics that public schools often leave behind (see chart below).