Working Paper: Examining Variation Within the Charter School Sector

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Working Paper: Examining Variation within the Charter School Sector

Using propensity score matching and virtual control records in examining test scores in English Language Arts (ELA) and math for 2009-10 through 2011-12 in California, Charisse Gulosino and Jonah Liebert find that urban charter schools boost results relative to their matched comparison groups of traditional public schools while suburban and rural charter schools post similar results in ELA and inferior results in math relative to their matched comparison groups of traditional public schools.

Charter schools have been a largely urban phenomenon for two reasons. First, the very purpose of many charter schools has been to serve as alternatives to underperforming district schools, a disproportionate number of which are clustered in cities. Second, for schools of any type to achieve economies of scale, they need communities big enough to generate sufficient enrollment.

However, charter schools are neither limited to boosting scores in reading and math as their primary mission nor confined to cities alone. From their beginning, charter schools have been as much about providing more inclusive pedagogical methodologies. They have likewise been started in suburbs and rural towns as well as cities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 56 percent of charter schools are located in cities (compared to 25 percent of traditional public schools), 26 percent of charter schools are located in suburbs (compared to 32 percent of traditional public schools), and 18 percent of charter schools are located in towns or rural areas (compared to 43 percent of traditional public schools).

Minnesota, home to the nation’s first charter schools, provides a notable case in point. In keeping with an emphasis on accountability, the Minnesota legislature indeed defined charter schools as “outcome-based schools” in its 1991 law creating this new form of educational governance, but the focus of the law was as much on “the use of different and innovative teaching methods” as it was on results. Among the state’s first seven charter schools was a K-8 Montessori in the small city of Winona, a K-12 project-based school in the rural town of Meadowlands, a pair of K-12 schools in the small city of Stillwater as well as Minneapolis dedicated to retaining at-risk youth through vocational opportunities in the surrounding community, a K-8 in Minneapolis with wrap-around services, a high school in St. Paul enrolling drop-outs, and a K-8 in St. Paul for the hearing-impaired.

In “Examining Variation Within the Charter School Sector,” Charisse Gulosino and Jonah Liebert focus on California, which followed Minnesota in 1992 to become the second state to authorize charter schools and is now home to the largest charter school sector in the country, with approximately 1,350 charter schools enrolling ten percent of the state’s public school students (compared to six percent for the country as a whole). Using propensity score matching and virtual control records in examining test scores in English Language Arts (ELA) and math for 2009-10 through 2011-12, Gulosino and Liebert find that urban charter schools boost results relative to their matched comparison groups of traditional public schools while suburban and rural charter schools post similar results in ELA and inferior results in math relative to their matched comparison groups of traditional public schools.

To Gulosino, an associate professor of education policy at the University of Memphis, and Liebert, a policy analyst at the New York City Department of Education, these differences in outcomes suggest a divide over parental preferences, with parents sending their children to suburban and rural charter schools placing greater value on school culture and pedagogical philosophy than test scores. These differences, they contend, also shed light on the significantly heterogeneous results for California’s charter schools.

Supported by seven maps and seven tables, this working paper provides a rigorous, well-documented analysis of the evolution of charter schools in California and paves the way for further research.

Samuel E. Abrams
Director, NCSPE
July 6, 2020

Coming soon: Katharine Parham on charter schools and special education; and Francisco Lagos on the impact of Chile’s Inclusion Law of 2015.

Published Monday, Jul. 6, 2020