New Study Reveals That For-Profit Charter Schools Show Poor Academic Growth

Politicians from both sides of the aisle are declaring their support for charter schools as a solution to disappointing public school systems. But do they really work?

June 15, 2017
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In February 2017, Betsy DeVos narrowly slid through her confirmation hearing to become the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Before Vice President Pence’s tie-breaking vote confirmed DeVos in her new position, she served as chair of a pro–school-choice group called American Federation for Children.

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Shealah Craighead/White House

One of the core planks of that group’s policy proposal is to encourage the growth of charter schools, which, in the simplest terms, are public schools run by private groups. Those groups can be educators, special interest groups, institutions, or—as opponents to heavier investment in charters never tire of pointing out—for-profit businesses.

According to NPR, 15 percent of the nearly 7,000 charter schools in operation in the United States today are run by for-profits, which generate income at least in part through funds drawn from the public school system.

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In Michigan, where DeVos worked as a chairwoman for the Republican Party before joining the president’s cabinet, 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profit businesses. That’s a higher concentration of for-profit charter schools than you’ll find in any other state.

Given DeVos’ well-documented support of for-profit charter schools and the strength of her platform as secretary of education, it seems like a good time to stop and ask the crucial question about this new approach to the U.S. public school system. Do for-profit charter schools actually do a better job of educating our children?

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A recent study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University suggests that the answer is decidedly “no.”

CREDO’s study, “Charter Management Organizations 2017,” compared academic performance at nonprofit and for-profit charter schools.

On average, students at for-profit institutions required 23 extra days of math education to reach the same benchmarks as their counterparts at nonprofit schools. They needed six extra days of reading instruction.

By comparison, the study found that students at traditional public schools required 11 more days of both reading and math than attendees of nonprofit charter schools did. However, students who receive special education are far better off at traditional public schools than either type of charter institution.

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Special education students at schools in a charter network in which a single organization runs multiple schools fell behind in math by 86 days per year compared to public schools as we used to know them. In other types of charter schools, the students who receive special education fell behind by 108 days per year.

Academics who study charter schools and public education tend to agree that CREDO’s research is rigorous and reliable. Advocates on both sides of the debate regularly cite CREDO studies, although they tend to cherry-pick the research that supports their viewpoint while ignoring the undeniable mixed outcomes in charter school performance. 

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No matter where you stand on hot-button issues like school choice, voucher programs, and teachers unions, this CREDO study provides valuable data that should help guide education policy on a national level. The only question now is whether legislators are interested in that data.

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