by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that have more freedom than district-run public schools but are required to meet certain state regulations, such as participation in the state testing program. The N.C. General Assembly passed the charter school law twenty years ago. Today, 159 charter schools enroll an estimated 82,000 students. According to self-reported data collected by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction in 2015, the wait list for charter school seats hovers around 32,000 children.
North Carolina state statutes outline six goals for the state’s public charter schools. “Improve student learning” is first on the list. That is no accident. Yet, the prioritization of raising student achievement may come as a surprise to some. After all, the mainstream media repeatedly claim that charter schools are meant to be, first and foremost, “laboratories of innovation,” that is, schools that adopt alternative instructional models, teaching methods, and institutional configurations.
But experimentation is a means to an end. The state’s charter school law provides them the regulatory flexibility to implement alternatives, but freedom to experiment was never meant to come at the expense of improving student learning. In fact, some of the most successful charter schools in North Carolina employ what some would consider to be conventional or “old fashioned” teaching methods.
The point is that we should not determine the success of charter schools and the charter school movement generally based on the novelty of their approaches but on their ability to improve student learning for the population that they serve. If state test scores are any indication, they are doing just that.
In time for National Charter Schools Week, the Roger Bacon Academy, Inc. and the NC Alliance for Public Charter Schools published a comparison of charter and district performance on 2014-15 state tests. Data were verified by NC Department of Public Instruction analysts and compare overall proficiency percentages by subgroup. According to the Roger Bacon Academy analysis,
In 12 of 13 demographic subgroups— including minorities, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities— students at public charter schools academically outperformed students at traditional public schools on standardized and state-mandated End-of-Grade (EOG) tests. Overall for the most recent year, NCDPI data reveal that the performance average of NC charter school students was 66.6% compared to the traditional public school student performance average of 56.2%.
The thirteenth demographic subgroup was the Academically and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) population. In that case, students in district schools outperformed their counterparts in charters by only 0.5 percentage points.
Among traditionally underperforming demographic subgroups, charter schools far outperformed district schools. Nearly half of low-income students in charter schools achieved grade level proficiency on state tests, compared to 41.5 percent in district schools. Hispanic, African American, and English Language Learner students who attend charter schools are significantly more likely to be grade level proficient than their district school peers.
That said, I doubt that the charter school community is content with merely outscoring district averages. They want to close achievement gaps. Although the white-black and white-Hispanic achievement gaps are narrower in charter schools than in districts, there is still much work to be done.
The 2014-15 school year is not the first time that charters outperformed districts. Charter school proponents point out regularly that aggregate charter proficiency averages have surpassed district scores for years.
Predictably, the mainstream media and charter opponents often refuse to acknowledge that fact. Instead, they choose to focus almost exclusively on charters that have been censured or closed due to financial mismanagement or academic failure. Others choose to criticize the racial and socioeconomic demographics of charter school enrollment. While those issues warrant additional discussion, the fact is that charter schools are among the most successful public schools in the state and should receive the recognition they deserve.