NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 23, 2009

New York City students who win a lottery to enroll in charter schools outperform those who don't win spots and go on to attend traditional schools, according to a new study, led by Stanford University economics Prof. Caroline Hoxby. 

The research, says the Wall Street Journal, is likely to fire up the movement to push states and school districts to expand charter schools -- one of the centerpieces of President Barack Obama's education strategy. 

Charter schools are publicly funded schools, typically with nonunion teachers, that are granted more freedom by states in curriculum and hiring, and are often promoted as a way to turn around failing schools. 

  • Among students who had spent their academic careers in charter schools, the average eighth grader in Hoxby's study had a state mathematics test score of 680, compared with 650 for those in traditional schools; the tests are generally scored on a roughly 500 to 800 scale, with 650 representing proficiency.
  • Hoxby's study also found that the charter-school students, who tend to come from poor and disadvantaged families, scored almost as well as students in the affluent Scarsdale school district in the suburbs north of the city; the English test results showed a similar pattern.
  • Lastly, the study found students were more likely to earn a state Regents diploma, given to higher-achieving students, the longer they attended charter schools.

This year, the Renaissance Charter School in Queens and the Democracy Prep Charter School in Harlem each had 1,500 applicants for 80 seats.  Renaissance co-principal Stacey Gauthier says 90 percent of students achieve proficiency in the state test and end up going to college.  "We have to perform well or we lose our charter," she says.  "It makes us step up our game."

Critics of charter schools have long argued that any higher test scores were not necessarily attributable to anything the schools were doing, but to the students themselves, on the premise that only the most motivated students and families elected charters.  Hoxby's study sought to address that argument by comparing students who attend charters directly with similarly motivated students -- those who sought to attend charters but were denied a seat through a random lottery.  She concluded the charters did have a positive effect.

Source: John Hechinger and Ianthe Jeanne Dugan, "Charter Schools Pass Key Test in Study," Wall Street Journal, September 22, 2009.

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