(The Center Square) – A study says if Pennsylvania political leaders want to get serious about improving student achievement, and closing the racial achievement gap, they might want to consider charter school expansion.
The new report is from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Still Rising: Charter School Enrollment and Student Achievement at the Metropolitan Level. Analyzing data of grade level achievement in reading and math across metropolitan areas, the report found significant gains in math scores for poor, Black, and Hispanic students when charter schools’ total enrollment share in a metro area goes up.
Those improvements happened across public schools, not just charters. “The rising tide of charter schools lifts all boats,” said David Griffith, report author and the Fordham Institute’s associate director of research.
When charter schools’ total enrollment share goes up, a metro area’s achievement gap drops: racial and socioeconomic differences in math scores fall.
“We shouldn’t care what kind of schools kids succeed in – we should care whether or not they succeed,” Griffith said.
Success, for charter schools and traditional public schools alike, stems from competition for students. “Big, urban districts are kind of bureaucratic … they have to be kind of given a kick in the pants, and I think there’s something to that,” Griffith said. When parents aren’t satisfied with the quality of education their children get and have the option to send them elsewhere, they will. Then schools have to do better.
As of 2021, Pennsylvania has 163 brick-and-mortar charter schools serving 169,000 students, according to the Keystone Center for Charter Change. The Fordham Institute report noted that charter schools have a bigger impact – scores go up and the achievement gap shrinks – in larger metropolitan areas. The benefits might be stronger in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh than smaller cities like Allentown and Reading, and more significant effects in Allentown and Reading than in rural areas.
Funding differences are often blamed for racial achievement gaps by state education officials. The state budget has grown for K-12 education, but lawmakers may be wise to consider more competition among schools as a way to lessen the gap.
“Any policy that can put a serious dent in those achievement gaps at scale deserves policymakers’ consideration,” Griffith said. “I struggle to think of another policy with the same track record that charter schools have at this point.”