Background information on charter schools: Research studies and NJEA’s position

Published on Thursday, September 30, 2010

For 15 years, public charter schools have been part of the public education landscape in New Jersey.  They are now a well-established part of New Jersey’s public school system.  NJEA supported the original 1995 law which authorized public charter schools in New Jersey, and supports current legislation to allow additional charter school authorizers.

When they work well, public charter schools are a valuable addition to New Jersey’s public education system.  Ideally, they should use their additional measure of autonomy to experiment with new teaching and learning strategies.  When those strategies succeed, they should be shared with other public schools, for the benefit of all students.  If those strategies fail, that information should be shared as well.  In short, public charter schools should be laboratories for innovation, as are many traditional public schools and public magnet schools in the state.  Like all public schools, charter schools should be subject to high levels of accountability to ensure that students there are being well-served.

While charter schools are an important part of New Jersey’s high quality public school system, they are not the panacea that some advocates claim.   It does a disservice to both students and to effective, successful schools of all types to treat charter schools as a solution to the challenges of public education simply because they have the word “charter” in their name.

New Jersey study: charters rank low in NJ
According to Rutgers University researcher Dr. Bruce Baker, New Jersey’s public charter schools still have work to do to live up to the expectations some proponents have for them.  According to Dr. Baker’s research

  • “But my analysis of the data paint a different story: some charters do well, but overall, charters are ranked among the lowest statewide, performing far below successful, suburban and middle class public schools, and at levels comparable to schools in poor districts. (emphasis added) In other words, there is little difference between the overall performance of charters, which primarily serve students in poorer urban districts, and the traditional public schools in those districts, especially if State education officials allow chronically low achieving charters to remain in business.”
  • “This data is striking: charter schools, most of which serve relatively poor student populations, perform across grade levels on par with schools in the poorest districts -- DFG A and B – especially at both the beginning and end grades. Moreover, charter performance is no different for students scoring advanced and higher.”
  • “The decidedly mixed performance of New Jersey’s charter sector mirrors the conclusions reached by Robert Bifulco and Katrina Bulkley, in their excellent summary of research literature on charter schools in the Handbook of Research on Education Finance and Policy:

Research to date provides little evidence that the benefits envisioned in the original conceptions of charter schools – organizational and educational innovation, improved student achievement, and enhanced efficiency – have materialized.’"

Stanford study: mixed reviews for charters
A major longitudinal study of charter schools nationally, which included more than 2,400 schools from 15 states and the District of Columbia (but not New Jersey) likewise found mixed results for charter schools.  The CREDO study, conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, while not dismissing the potential of charter schools as a reform tool, cautioned that more charter schools actually perform worse than comparable traditional public schools (TPS) than perform better.

Key points from the CREDO study on charter schools: 

  • Methodology:
    • For each charter school student, a virtual twin is created based on students who match the charter student’s demographics, English language proficiency and participation in special education or subsidized lunch programs. Virtual twins were developed for 84 percent of all the students in charter schools. The resulting matched longitudinal comparison is used to test whether students who attend charter schools fare better than if they had instead attended traditional public schools in their community. (page 1)

  •  Results: 
    • Of the 2403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons.
    • Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant amount account for 17 percent of the total.
    • The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local traditional public schools instead.  (page 3)

  •  Conclusions:
    • Charter schools have become a rallying cry for education reformers across the country, with every expectation that they will continue to figure prominently in national educational strategy in the months and years to come. And yet, this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their TPS counterparts. Further, tremendous variation in academic quality among charters is the norm, not the exception. The problem of quality is the most pressing issue that charter schools and their supporters face. (page 6)

NJEA’s position: charters have a role

NJEA support high-quality public charter schools as one component of an innovative, progressive system of public education.  While no single school model can provide all the answers to the challenges faced by our public schools, public charter schools, along with magnet schools, vocational schools and traditional public schools can all play an important role as laboratories for innovation and provide a broad array of choices for parents.  It is critical that successful schools of all types share their successes that that other students can benefit from the best practices in all of New Jersey’s public schools.

As a matter of principle and practice, public charter schools should strive serve student populations which reflect the student population of the host district.  Furthermore, communication between public charter schools and their host school districts should be improved, so that the best practices of both can be shared in an atmosphere of collaboration rather than competition.  The majority of New Jersey’s students do – and will continue to – attend traditional public schools.  The wellbeing of all students, and all schools, should remain the focus of all school reform efforts.


Stanford University CREDO study

Dr. Bruce Baker’s research

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