Research

Accountability

in 2004, the U.S. Department of Education published a report indicating that more than half of all charter school authorizers had trouble closing a charter school that was not performing well. Charter schools not being held accountable for their results is a problem because it is a prominent feature of the charter school concept. Recent research from the Center for Education Reform (CER), a charter advocacy group, indicates that 12% of all charter schools that have opened have been closed, with more than two thirds of the closures coming as a result of financial deficiencies or mismanagement. CER argues that this "shows that ineffective schools first demonstrate the inability to remain financially viable or effectively operate well before there are signs that the school is struggling academically." However, critics suggest authorizers fail to close those schools that are academically failing but are still fiscally competent.

Achievement

Student achievement in charter schools is important information in policy decisions. The most rigorous studies conducted to date have found that charter schools are not, on average, better or worse in student performance than the traditional public school counterparts. This average result, however, obscures tremendous variation between individual charter schools and charter schools in different states. Some of charter schools significantly outperform their counterparts in traditional districts. Some states have better performing charter schools than others. The single most rigorous study of charter schools yet conducted, funded by the U.S. Department of Education and conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, found that on average charter middle schools that held lotteries for entrance were "neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement." The authors also found that, on average, schools serving more disadvantaged students had positive effects on math achievement, while schools serving more students with higher income and prior achievement had negative effects on math test scores. As they note, the study's results may not generalize to all charter schools, since they only studied schools that had significantly more applicants than they could accept.

The results of the Mathematica study gives context to previous research. A well-publicized study of charter schools by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) in 15 states and the District of Columbia studied 70% of the students enrolled in charter schools in the U.S. They found 17 percent of charters posted academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, 37 percent of charter schools were significantly worse, and 46 percent were statistically indistinguishable. Another recent study by Zimmer et al. found that charters in five jurisdictions were performing the same as traditional public schools, while charter schools in two other jurisdictions were performing worse.

While some studies do not show stellar academic achievement from charter schools, other studies in some cities have found strong positive results. Using a rigorous methodology similar to the Mathematica study of charter middle schools, Hoxby, Murarka, and Kang found that charter schools in New York City, on average, significantly outperformed the traditional counterparts. In a comparable study of Boston charter schools, Abdulkadiroglu et al. found that charters improved student achievement significantly more than traditional public schools.

Educational Innovation

In one of the founding documents of the charter school movement, Brookings Institution fellows John Chubb and Terry Moe argued that autonomy, choice and freedom from many of the regulations governing traditional public schools would make charter schools centers of educational innovation. Most research, including a paper by Christopher Lubienski in 2003 and a report by Gill et al. in 2007, a have not found significant evidence of this. Charter schools have not innovated education interventions much faster than traditional public schools. A recent paper by Berends at al., however, suggests that charter schools have been more innovative than traditional public schools in their organization, if not their curriculum. Berends et al. also find that charter schools are more likely than traditional public schools to significantly incorporate values and morals within their curriculum.

Finance and Operations

Generally, charter schools receive less government funding than traditional public schools on a per-pupil basis. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute issued a report in 2005, based on data from the 2002-03 school year, indicating that the average state spent 21.7% less per pupil on charter schools than traditional public schools. Researchers at Ball State University completed a  follow-up to the original report with data from 24 states and Washington, D.C. of the 2006-07 school year. They found that states spent an average of 19.2% less per pupil on charter school students. The researchers argue that differences in the student populations served by charter and traditional public schools cannot explain the wide disparities. In other words, they conclude charter schools are not receiving less money because they are educating students with less costly needs. A recent report published by the Education and the Public Interest Center, however, argues that the discrepancy in funding is in large part due to the different obligations on charter and traditional public schools. The authors point out that traditional public schools are required to provide more extensive transportation, food and student support services than charter schools. Consequently, they spend substantially more money in those areas.