Charter Schools vs. Public: Is One Better Than the Other?

New data shows just how well kids are doing in many of the nation’s charter schools.

The debate over charter schools vs. public schools has been going on for years. (Photo: Getty Images)

Apr 25, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Sylvia Blain, a mother of two sons, knows the opportunities that come with charter schools.

Blain, who lives in North Little Rock, Arkansas, sent her sons to a local charter school for several years before transitioning them into traditional public schools. Both children, however, had vastly different experiences at the charter school.

“One child was very geared to the math and science focus of the school,” Blain told TakePart. “The other child found that his creative needs were not met. I did feel like the smaller student-to-teacher ratio was a plus for us and the relationships we made with the staff were more personal. The school went out of its way to learn as much as they could about the individual child in order to cater to their academic needs.”

A new study by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports that these innovative schools are “providing excellent learning opportunities for students.”

The report’s analysis notes that students who attended charter schools for four years have “stronger achievement growth than traditional public school students and non-CMO charter students in both reading and math.”

The study also looks at charter schools vs. public schools in an array of states, including Florida, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.

In every case, it seems that charter school students outrank their traditional public school peers. For example, the study reports that “on average, students in Washington, D.C. who attended public charter schools scored 15 and 16 percent of a standard deviation better in reading and math respectively.”

In New Jersey, students enrolled in urban charter schools learn significantly more in both math and reading compared to their traditional public school peers.

So are students really getting a better education in charter schools?

“The question, ‘Do students get a better education in charter schools?’ is complicated,” Ross Danis, president and CEO of Newark Trust for Education, told TakePart.

He says that a great school is a great school regardless of its classification.

“There are effective charters and ineffective charters, and there are effective district schools and ineffective district schools, he said. “As a whole, Newark has a higher percentage of high-performing charters that the entire State of New Jersey.”

But charter schools, regardless of high-achieving academic performance, have a major downside—the death of the neighborhood school.

“School closures in Philadelphia are directly related to the rise of charter school enrollments in the district, as charter schools continue to draw the most motivated families away from their neighborhood schools,” Jerusha Connor, assistant professor of education at Villanova University, told TakePart.

Connor also said that recent research shows that charter schools significantly under-enroll students with special needs.

I would rather see our public schools rise to meet the standards of the charters than to see money flowing from the public schools to charters.

She also pointed to KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools as another killer of neighborhood schools.

“Student and teacher attrition tend to be higher at KIPP schools than traditional schools, and KIPP schools spend more per-pupil than traditional public schools, because they can supplement state and district funding with private donations from foundations and wealthy individual donors,” she said.

The National Alliance for Public Charter School study shows that KIPP schools have “significant and substantial positive impacts” on reading, math, science and social studies.

Blain took her sons out of their Little Rock charter school, she says, primarily because it lacked many Advanced Placement level classes and art courses. She’s not opposed to sending her youngest son back to a charter school, but would prefer that public schools rise up to meet what charter schools offer.

“I would rather see our public schools rise to meet the standards of the charters than to see money flowing from the public schools to charters,” Blain said. “That being said, I don't believe our public school system is agile or willing enough to make the changes it needs to be more effective. I believe charters are a good alternative to a system that is often substandard.”