More than 38,000 children attend charter schools in New York City, about 4 percent of the city’s total public school enrollment. Nationally, more than two million U.S. students attended 5,600 charter schools during the 2011-2012 school year (National Alliance of Charter Schools 2011). These schools are heavily concentrated in urban districts.
The promise of chartering is that, freed from the constraints of district bureaucracy, union contracts, and prescriptive instructional models, charters will be better able to innovate to meet their students’ instructional needs, resulting in higher student performance and that, ideally, lessons learned from charter schools will inspire similar innovations in traditional public schools.
Through state and federal policy initiatives, the charter sector is growing by hundreds of schools per year across the nation (Center for Education Reform 2011). With that growth comes a robust national and New York City debate over the academic performance of charter schools as compared to traditional public schools, and over the impact of the growing charter sector on traditional public schools and school districts.
Researchers have used a variety of methods and measures to compare charter school students with demographically similar students attending traditional public schools. A major national study on charter school academic effects reported that about a fifth of charters schools out-perform peer district schools, twice that number under-perform and the rest showed no significant differences in academic achievement (Center for Research on Education Outcomes 2009). Another study of middle-school effects reported higher satisfaction levels among charter school parents and students and positive academic outcomes for lower-income and lower-achieving students but not for others (Gleason et al. 2009).
Charter schools in New York City have shown better academic results on average than charters nationally. A 2010 Center for Research on Education Outcomes study of New York City charters found a small but statistically significant achievement advantage for students in charter schools. Gains were more significant in math than in reading, and for some sub-populations of students (Center for Research on Education Outcomes 2010). A 2009 study of charter enrollments and performance in New York City showed improved student performance in math, and slightly improved reading scores, for similar students in New York City charter school students over district public schools (Hoxby & Murarka 2009). The study was contested because of how it compared student demographics between charter and non-charter students (Reardon 2009). This reflects a central contention around charter schools in New York City; while the sector shows test scores that exceed the citywide average, its student population is also more advantaged than the citywide average.
Locally and nationally, enrollment in charter schools is the focus of considerable debate. Unlike traditional public schools, students and families must proactively seek out and enroll in a charter school. There is no right of entry, and traditional catchment areas or neighborhood boundary systems do not apply. Charter schools set enrollment ceilings and may close their doors when that ceiling is reached. Charter enrollment is typically on a first-come, first-served basis. When there are more applicants than seats, admission is handled through a lottery.
Many charter schools require students and parents to sign contracts specifying performance and behavior expectations for students (and sometimes parents). And some charter schools require students (and parents) to be interviewed before admission. In addition, charter schools can expel or counsel out students for a wide range of academic and behavioral infractions, while district public schools are generally much more limited in their ability to do so. These practices fuel an ongoing debate over whether students enrolled in charter schools are demographically and academically similar to students in traditional public schools.
On the whole, charter schools are more segregated by race and class than traditional public schools (Frankenberg, Sigel-Hawley & Wang 2010), and charter schools enroll proportionately fewer English language learners and students with disabilities (United States Government Accountability Office 2012). Students with the most severe disabilities are the most significantly under-enrolled in charters. These national findings are consistent with studies of New York City charter school enrollment. One study found that New York City charters enroll fewer students from the poorest families (Baker & Ferris 2011).
Another focus of the charter debate focuses on equity in school spending. As private nonprofit entities, some charter schools raise significant funding from philanthropies or business sources, creating inequities both among charters and also between charter schools and traditional public schools. One study found that per pupil spending in New York City charter schools varies by as much as $10,000 per pupil, largely due to disparities in private resources (Baker & Ferris 2011).
In New York City, as well as nationally, issues of public funding for charter schools are contentious. Much of this debate centers on facilities funding. In most states, and in New York City, charter schools must purchase or lease their facilities, and state law determines whether schools are provided with public financial support for facilities. But New York City is unique in that about half of charter schools operate in public school buildings provided by the Department of Education for $1 a year. Because these charter schools do not contribute to building costs such as maintenance, utilities, or security, more of their public allocations are freed up for instructional purposes, creating significant inequities. Combined with the ability of many charter schools to raise significant private resources, these co-located charter schools have been the source of much tension as parents experience disparities in resources between well-funded charter schools and under-funded public schools within a single building (Domanico & Smith 2011).
Charter schools offer educational options for parents in hundreds of urban districts across the country. While many charter schools are successful, the majority of charter schools do not out-perform traditional public schools in terms of student academic outcomes. Students with disabilities and English Language Learners are under-represented among charter school students, both nationally and in New York City. Such demographic differences between charters and traditional public schools may leave traditional public schools with a disproportionate share of harder-to-serve students and fewer resources to meet their needs.
If charters are to benefit all students and enhance the quality of education throughout a school district, charter school policy should focus on:
- Granting charters only to schools that promise innovative approaches to instruction and school culture that can be replicated if successful, and/or that are specifically focused on better serving student populations that have struggled in traditional public schools.
- Creating mechanisms and flexibilities for charters that spur – and do not deter – innovation and that require those innovations to be assessed and shared across school sectors.
- Ensuring that all charter schools – as publicly funded institutions – are fully accountable to the community as a whole, including requiring full transparency of financial, instructional, policy, and other operations, and requiring compliance with all local and state public meetings and public records laws.
- Ensuring that charter schools are guided by a vision for accommodating all students with equitable access and community accountability for results.
Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). 2009. Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University. Downloadable PDF available at:
Gleason, P., M. Clark, C. Clark Tuttle, and E. Dwoyer. 2010. The Evaluation of Charter School Impacts. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research. Downloadable PDF available at:
Miron, G., J. Urschel, W. Mathis W., and E. Tornquist, E. 2010. Schools Without Diversity: Education Management Organizations, Charter Schools, and the Demographic Stratification of the American School System. Boulder, CO and Tempe, AZ: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Downloadable PDF available at:
Prepared by: Annenberg Institute for School Reform, www.annenberginstitute.org
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