Public charter schools were once viewed as a nonpartisan compromise between vouchers for private schools and no choice at all. Not now. In its 2020 national platform, the Democratic Party calls for “stringent guardrails to ensure charter schools are good stewards” and says federal funding for charters must be conditioned on “whether the charter will systematically underserve the neediest students.” Charter schools are indeed acting as good stewards by outpacing district schools on achievement growth—especially for the most at-risk students.
In a new study we compare the progress made by cohorts of charter and district school students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 2005-17—a sample of more than four million test performances. Overall, students at charters are advancing at a faster pace than those at district schools. The strides made by African-American charter students have been particularly impressive. We also see larger gains at charters, relative to district schools, by students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.
Sometimes known as “the nation’s report card,” the NAEP administers math and reading tests every other year to representative samples of fourth- and eighth-grade students in all 50 states. Ours is the first study to use this vast storehouse of information to analyze changes over time in the charter and district sectors. By adjusting for student background characteristics—sex, ethnicity, income, and (for eighth-grade students) computer availability and the number of books in the home—we made direct comparisons between student outcomes at charter and district schools. Because NAEP data don’t allow us to track specific students, we looked at changes in performance from one student cohort to the next over 12 years.