Addressing Differences in Public Schools Based on Federal Data

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Stock photo of students wearing backpacks

A new report from the U.S. Department of Education examines school choice in the United States. Using survey data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, the report examines trends from 1999 to 2016 in various topics such as enrollment, parental satisfaction, and student performance. 

One of the biggest takeaways is that the public charter school sector experienced tremendous growth in the 2000s, growing from 400,000 students enrolled in 2000 to over 3 million students enrolled in 2016. At the same time, private schools saw a four percent decrease in their enrollment. Taken together, these two trends possibly indicate that while families value choice, paying more for that choice is becoming less popular.

Charter schools have a unique place in the education landscape where families can have options without paying anything out of pocket or moving to another neighborhood.

The report also shows that 60 percent of students enrolled in public schools of choice had parents who reported they were very satisfied with their schools, compared to only 54 percent of students enrolled in assigned district public schools had parents who reported they were very satisfied with their schools. Though private schools posted the highest rate of satisfaction of all with 77 percent of students enrolled having parents who were very satisfied. This further fortifies the claim that when parents get to decide their school for their children, they are often happier about the outcome.  

The report also examines academic performance between students enrolled in district public schools and students enrolled in charter public schools. The report suggests that there are no measurable differences in reading and mathematics scores at the national level between the average student in the two sectors.

While the analysis does account for parent education levels, it is important to note that the comparison is strictly correlational and does not account for other factors that can simultaneously affect the choice to attend a charter school and academic performance. It also assumes that the average student in the two sectors is similar, which is unlikely given that charter schools enroll more students identified as poor or near-poor.

Other studies, like the ones conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), are bettered positioned to answer questions about the relative performance between students in district versus charter schools. These types of studies use student-level data, can control for a host of student level factors, and, most importantly, can employ research methods designed around developing credible causal estimates.

While the report provided by the Department of Education is important and informative, we must exercise caution in generalizing the performance comparisons to characterize the public school sector by type. Generalizations can obscure important variations across states and locales that can help us better understand how different policies can support high-quality public schools for all children.   


Adam Gerstenfeld is a manager of data and research at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Nathan Barrett, Ph.D., is the senior director of research and evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.


October 25, 2019 - 11:39am
Paul Zive

Resources —our tax dollars — are limited.

Since the educational outcomes of charter schools do not represent an improvement over traditional public schools, why are we paying for parallel systems here? The economies would be better for all taxpayers if we eliminated the charter schools, and were not paying to build, heat, cool and maintain a second set of schools, nor for a second set of administrators, district office personnel, etc.

This simply does not make good economic sense.

October 31, 2019 - 09:42am
Nathan Barrett

Paul, the blog specifically addresses the fact that although the NCES report suggests that the two sectors are performing at the same level it is not designed to provide causal estimates. But for the sake of argument, let's say that it is. There are numerous peer-reviewed studies that suggest that the presence of charter schools influences the performance and resource allocation of traditional schools in positive ways. The argument that the duplication of certain costs is reason enough to abandon public charter schools makes the dubious assumption that traditional schools and districts are already operating at efficient levels.