Charter schools are not all equal

In the 27 years since the first charter school opened in Minnesota, there has been considerable debate about the benefits to students from the opportunity created by an alternative educational option. But in a set of new studies, University of Rochester economist John Singleton argues that maximizing any benefits requires a careful examination of how charter schools are organized and a closer look at the policies that influence their location.

Singleton, an assistant professor of economics, hopes his work will help educational policymakers to craft guidelines and practices that are in the best interests of all students.

Charter schools receive government funding, yet operate independently of state school systems and local districts. While proponents have long argued that charter schools have a positive impact on district schools by creating competition, the empirical evidence has been mixed.

Singleton wanted to know if the potential impacts varied according to the type of charter school. In one study, he looked at specific types of charter schools that offer alternative styles of instruction, such as experiential and project-based learning. Examples include Montessori schools, characterized by mixed-age classrooms, student self-assessment, and increased freedoms for students. In their working paper, “Horizontal Differentiation and the Policy Effect of Charter Schools,” Singleton and two colleagues-Michael Gilraine of New York University and Uros Petronijevic of York University-explain that those charter schools, which they term “horizontally differentiated,” have very little, if any, effect on student performance at nearby public schools.

“Many charter schools are moving into neighborhoods where they’re not serving what we consider to be the social purpose of charter schools.”

“The parents sending their children to those charter schools value an alternative style of instruction, so there’s no real competition with traditional public schools,” says Singleton. “As a result, officials at the nearby district schools have no incentive for making changes.”

That’s unlike the non-horizontally differentiated charter schools-the ones that focus on core skills using traditional methods of instruction. In those instances, Singleton describes the average improvement in standardized math test scores as comparable to increasing student learning by three to four weeks. By comparison, there’s virtually no improvement in student learning at public schools located near the horizontally differentiated charter schools.

Singleton had a unique opportunity to study the issue in North Carolina. Up until 2011, that state had a limit on the number of charter schools allowed-100. The cap has since been lifted, resulting in a near doubling of charter schools, giving Singleton access to a great deal of contemporary data for studying the impact of charter schools on nearby public schools.

The paper by the three researchers follows Singleton’s own work dealing with a different type of impact-that of the funding formula used to support charter schools. In a paper published recently in the American Economic Review, “Incentives and the Supply of Effective Charter Schools,” he describes how the universal per-pupil formula encourages the location of charter schools in more affluent areas, where operational costs are lower. In Florida, that means charter schools tend to locate in the suburbs, where it’s easier to find low-rent spaces in strip malls, old grocery stores, and industrial parks.

“Many charter schools are moving into neighborhoods where they’re not serving what we consider to be the social purpose of charter schools,” says Singleton. “My hypothesis is that many students going to those schools are simply ones who would otherwise go to private schools.”

According to Singleton, charter schools have become one of the primary vehicles for school choice. And based on his studies in Florida, the opportunity to choose a charter school is less likely to be available in urban settings, where the need for options is greater. Singleton encourages policymakers in Florida and other states to adopt funding programs that provide more financial support to schools that have higher operational costs, particularly those that locate in urban neighborhoods.

By better understanding the relationship between operational costs and location, as well as the influence of different types of charter schools, Singleton says policymakers will be able to craft policies that are in the best interests of all students.

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