Give charter schools a chance

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Ohio passed legislation authorizing a limited number of charter (community) schools in 1997, and has since amended the laws numerous times to expand the total number of charter schools in the state. In a new paper, my co-authors and I examined data from over 3,300 different public and charter schools in Ohio from 2004 to 2009 to compare school performance. Our indicator of school performance efficiency is the Ohio Department of Education’s Performance Index, which is based on students’ performance on the Ohio Achievement Assessments and Graduation Test.

Using the Performance Index as a measure, we are able to determine how efficient each school was over our sample period after controlling for other variables such a school’s per pupil spending, teacher experience, enrollment, disciplinary actions, percent of students of minority race, and percent of students from financially disadvantaged households. Controlling for the demographic differences is vital to studies like ours, because—as teachers in urban areas often argue—students from different socioeconomic levels receive vastly different levels of educational experiences outside of school, and teachers cannot be as effective in the classroom if they’re forced to dedicate instruction time to deal with disciplinary issues.

Our results provide several interesting insights. First, consistent with previous academic papers on this subject, we find that increases in per pupil spending have very little impact on school performance. In other words, contrary to the arguments advanced by teachers union, throwing money at public schools won’t make our nation’s education problems go away. Chalk this one up for the reformers.

Second, when we examined charter school performance, we found that Ohio charter schools were 2.5 to 5 percent less efficient than traditional public schools at the start of our sample period.  However, as time passed, the gap between charter schools and public schools shrank. Both types of schools, on average, grew more efficient each year, but charter schools improved more quickly.

For instance, while public school efficiency improved by 8.1 percent per year during our sample period, charter school efficiency improved by as much as 20 percent per year. According to our data, Ohio charter school performance had almost pulled equal with that of traditional public schools as of the 2008-09 academic year. In other words, charter schools aren’t perfect, but they learn and adapt quickly.

The relative performance of charter schools should not be surprising. Public schools have existed for decades, so it is fairly well known by administrators what works and what does not. Large and older organizations also tend to become stagnant and resistant to experimentation. But the market for charter schools is still young, and if past performance is any guarantee, these alternative schools are destined to do more than break even with public schools. For this reason, voters and education reformers across the country shouldn’t shy away from expanding charter schools.

Nesbit is a senior lecturer at The Ohio State University, a Mercatus Center affiliated senior scholar, and an adjunct scholar at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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