Weighing in on the Charter School Debate


January 24, 2017
By Doug Gavel

President Donald Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education has accelerated the discussion around the issue of charter schools, for which DeVos has long advocated in her native Michigan.  Charter schools are publicly funded, quasi-independently-operated community-based schools intended to serve as incubators for novel teaching and learning models, but their effectiveness within the public education system has been an issue of longstanding debate. 

We spoke with two Harvard Kennedy School faculty members to get their perspectives on charter schools and other issues of education policy facing the new administration. Paul Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and director of the Kennedy School’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG). Joshua Goodman is assistant professor of public policy whose research interests include labor and public economics, with a particular focus on education policy.

Question:  What are the benefits of charter schools, and how do they supplement conventional schools in the public education system?

Goodman: We have two very clear pieces of evidence about charter schools. First, there is wide variation in their effectiveness, with some charters substantially underperforming and other charters substantially outperforming their traditional public school counterparts. Second, the most successful charter schools, such as urban charter schools in Massachusetts, have large, positive impacts on test scores, high school coursework and college enrollment. As such, it's important to take the potential of charter schools seriously.

State legal frameworks governing charter schools vary widely. Some states hold charter schools strongly accountable for results, closing any schools that fail to make progress with their students. Other states have weaker accountability schemes. Designing an effective charter school policy therefore requires attention to details about accountability and other features, such as whether enrollment in charters is unified with traditional public school enrollment processes and whether charter schools provide transportation for students. Choices along all these dimensions affect the extent to which charters can be a positive choice for students whose options are otherwise limited.

Peterson: More than 40 states have authorized charters, but their distribution across the country is uneven. Charter enrollments are disproportionately concentrated in urban areas. The demand for charters in rural communities is limited, because rural Americans regard their district-operated schools as valuable institutions for reasons that go beyond their academic worth. 

The story is different within central cities. Big-city public schools are in big-time trouble, and many families send their children to their local schools more out of necessity than choice. For these families, the charter school option often holds strong appeal. They perceive charters to be smaller, safer, friendlier, and, more often than not, a better place to learn. In contrast to charters in suburban areas, which tend toward a progressive pedagogy, central-city charters typically embrace the “no-excuses” model of teaching and learning, emphasizing strict dress codes, rigorous discipline, extended school days and school years, and high expectations for performance on standardized tests. In general, these urban charters are outperforming their traditional public-school counterparts. The charter advantage seems to be particularly striking for African American students from low-income families.