We need to separate politics from reality in the charter school debate

We need to separate politics from reality in the charter school debate
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For the second year in a row, the Trump administration’s budget request includes a federal funding increase for charter schools. Charter schools, which once were seen by many on both the left and right as one promising path to school improvement, have sadly fallen victim to the political polarization that characterizes our times. Some now view charter schools as a “gateway drug” leading to vouchers for private schools, and that is enough to set them against charters.

A robust informed debate about charter schools could begin by clearing up some misunderstandings about them. Many believe that charter schools are private schools receiving public tax dollars, when charters are actually publicly-funded schools that remain subject to many rules that govern traditional public schools. They must be nonsectarian, remain tuition-free, and comply with federal civil rights law and regulations, but they are run by an entity other than the local school district.

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To ensure accountability, these schools operate under a “charter,” or contract, with the local district (or sometimes with the state or other public entity) that specifies the academic outcomes the charter school agrees to achieve. In exchange for this important element of accountability, charter schools receive useful latitude over how and what they teach and whom they hire.

Research indicates that charter schools are effective. This explains their enduring popularity with many parents, students and local leaders since their emergence in the 1990s. While there is a wide range of quality in charter schools, as in all public schools, research indicates that well-run charters are capable of improving academic outcomes, especially in some settings and for particular types of students.

Urban charter schools, for example, seem to perform better than charter schools in other locations at improving student learning. Students from some minority groups, low-income students, and students with a previous record of low educational achievement also appear to gain the most from attending them.

The first significant wave of students to attend charter schools in the 2000s are currently working-aged adults now in their 20s, which means we can now measure meaningful student outcomes. Recent studies of those who attended charters in Florida, Chicago and Texas suggest that attending charter schools may boost high school graduation, college enrollment and completion, and even earnings during early adulthood. While some studies found no effect on longer-term outcomes and others found positive effects, the overall pattern thus far suggests that high-quality charter schools can, indeed, improve outcomes.

At least 11 studies have tackled a recurring question from critics of charter schools: Do these institutions drain resources from and harm students in traditional public schools? Six studies found that the presence of charter schools actually improved student achievement at the nearby traditional public schools. Four studies found no effect on the local traditional public schools. And only one study found negative effects. In other words, the benefits of high-quality charter schools do not come at the cost of students at nearby schools that are not charters.

We now have enough experience to conclude that high-quality charter schools can deliver better outcomes for at least some students. But even beyond this benefit, the true value of charter schools lies in their ability to experiment with new approaches to education. With proper accountability, charter schools are a source of innovation that America’s education system could use more of. Given how much we know about their ability to help students, congressional consideration and debate about funding should reflect what we know about charter schools, not what their opponents may fear.

Monica Herk is vice president of education research at the Committee for Economic Development. Follow her on Twitter @MonicaHerk.