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January 8, 2016

Caution When It Comes to Charter Schools in Virginia

Experience shows that charter schools are a mixed bag when it comes to meeting the high expectations for performance that supporters envision. That’s why lawmakers in Virginia should be cautious before investing more public funds in new charter schools with unproven results.

Supporters suggest that charter schools outperform their public school peers and provide opportunities for minority and low-income students to attend more diverse and higher-performing schools. But whether that’s actually true is uncertain. Research on charter schools is consistently unclear. In fact, studies find that, on average, charters perform pretty similar to public schools – with some doing better, and others worse.

In reviews of charters in 14 states released from 2006 through 2012, researchers found both negative and positive effects from charter schools with small average effects both ways. These effects were often limited to only a subset of grades or student groups, with no consistent trend.

The most comprehensive study on charters also found mixed results when comparing the performance of charters to public schools in 26 states and New York City. That 2013 study found that only 29 percent of charter schools outperformed their local public schools on math tests, 40 percent performed similarly and 31 percent performed worse. The results were comparable for reading tests, in which 56 percent of charters performed similarly to their local public schools. Virginia was not included in the study.

When it comes to racial segregation, the impact of charters is also mixed. A 2006 study in North Carolina found that black and white students chose to transfer to charter schools with peers more similar to their own race and socioeconomic status than in their public school. Black students transferred from public schools that were about 50 percent black to charters that were 70 percent black, and white students transferred from public schools that were about 30 percent black to charters that were only 18 percent black. A study in California and Texas found similar results.  

Yet, other studies, including one in Arkansas, show that the availability of charter schools can decrease racial segregation. Transfer students in this study selected charter schools that were more racially diverse than the public school they left.

Charter schools will be a hotly debated topic for lawmakers during this upcoming legislative session. For example, members of the House of Delegates and Senate have introduced constitutional amendments (HJ1 and SJ6) that would take away local authority for establishing charter schools and give it to the state Board of Education – a move that could increase the number of charter schools and the amount of public funding they get in Virginia.

As lawmakers consider any legislation on charter schools, they should keep these important findings in mind and stay focused on the real goal: ensuring the most effective education for Virginia’s students.

–Chris Duncombe, Policy Analyst

The Commonwealth Institute

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