Understanding the Impact of Charter Schools on Post-Secondary Achievement

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"Charter school students earn less!" Not really. Researchers recently found that the charter school students who graduated from 40 "regular" charter schools in Texas in 2003 and went on to Texas colleges and worked in Texas in 2011, earned $300 less per year than their non-charter school peers with the same pathway. Students who followed that path, but went to "No Excuses" charter schools earned about $100 per year more than their peers. But, truthfully, but there wasn't enough data to make either statement statistically sound.

The charter school movement is now in its twenty-fifth year and the start-up phase is clearly over. As we look to the future, we need to begin to carefully consider how the growing presence of charter schools has impacted the life outcomes of their students.

The good news is that many states are developing statewide longitudinal data systems that track students from preschool through college graduation. And some states are even able to connect those data to employment records. As states continue to develop these comprehensive data systems, we will be able to learn more about how charter school students have fared in postsecondary education and labor market outcomes, compared to their peers in non-charter schools.

Right now, the data are still very limited. In fact, to understand the impact of attending a charter school on median earnings at twenty-five years of age, a student would have needed to graduate from high school at least eight years ago. That cuts off a full third of the time span that charter schools have existed. And for a student to have spent their entire K-12 education in a charter school, they would have to have been in kindergarten twenty years ago, when charter schools were just appearing.

Nonetheless, this is important research and it should be expanded upon. A recent study of the impact of attending a Texas charter school on median earnings found every year a student spent in a “No Excuses” charter school increased their annual earnings by about $100. However, data limitations, such as too much “noise” around the numbers, meant that the researchers were not able to “reject the null of no impact.” The authors also found that attending a “regular” charter school in Texas reduced median earnings ten years later by just over $300 per year for each year that a student attended a charter school. Of a relatively complex research study described in a 77-page paper, this last point is the one that has grabbed headlines.

But we need to look at it much more carefully. Because the labor market data are from 2011, the authors were only able to include five "No Excuses" charter schools and 40 “regular” charter schools. Texas now has over 800 charter schools. So, data from 95 percent of Texas charter schools were not included. Also, the labor market data are only for those students who ending up working in Texas.

Other studies have found a significant positive impact on labor market and earnings for students who attended charter schools in Florida and Chicago. For comparison, the authors of the Texas study replicated the methodology of the Florida study and determined that, using that approach, attending a charter school in Texas increased annual earnings by about $450, as compared to the $2,000 increase found in Florida.

The authors of the Texas study looked beyond labor market outcomes and found that both types of charter schools had a positive effect on high school graduation, although for “regular” charter schools the effect was not statistically significant. A high school diploma is an important milestone that we know can have a long-term effect on a person's life. And, in fact, this study finds this positive correlation. They also found that both types of charter schools had positive impacts on two-year and four-year college enrollment.

These are some of the first attempts to figure out the long-term impact of creating a system of schools that provides parents with public school options. We need to do a lot more research that includes a much larger group of schools and students before we know how charter school students are faring in the long run.  


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