SUMMARY: Having looked at problems in our public schools, let’s take a look at problems in charter schools. One problem has to do with claims of improved student outcomes that are confounded by issues with student selection and retention.

  • Student outcomes at charter schools are no better than those of public schools when similar students are compared.
  • There are multiple concerns about the selection and retention of students at charter schools:
    • Fewer special education, English as a second language, and low income students than in public schools;
    • Students are recruited and retained who face fewer challenges than those in public schools; and
    • Weak and difficult students who enroll in charter schools are frequently pushed out.
  • Charter schools have no accountability for the outcomes of students they fail to retain.

These strategies for “creaming the crop” leave the weaker and more challenged (and more costly) students and families to be served by the public schools. Furthermore, the funding public school systems desperately need to serve their students is diverted to charter schools. As a result, charter schools undermine the ability of some school districts to provide an education that allows students to realize their potential.

FULL POST: Having looked at problems in our public schools, let’s take a look at problems in charter schools. One problem has to do with claims of improved student outcomes that are confounded by issues with student selection and retention.

Some charter schools do produce excellent student outcomes, but so do some public schools. Some charter schools have lousy outcomes, as do some public schools. Overall, the outcomes of charter schools do not appear to be significantly different than those of public schools. The most rigorous study comparing students in charter schools to similar students in public schools (they were on the waiting lists for the charter schools but did not get in) found no better outcomes overall for students in charter schools. [1]

Similarly, in Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner studied all the students who had applied to be in charter schools in Chicago when a lottery was held because more students applied than there was capacity to serve. Charter school advocates compared the outcomes of students in those charter schools to the outcomes of all Chicago Public Schools students and found that the charter school students did better. Levitt and Dubner compared the charter school students with the Chicago Public School students who had applied to the charter schools but had lost out in the lottery. They found that there were no significant differences between the outcomes of those two groups. [2]

The reason for this is that parents who are organized and motivated to apply to charter schools are typically more capable, engaged parents than those who don’t apply. Their children are going to have better outcomes than the average student whether they get into a charter school or not.

This makes it very difficult to accurately compare the performance of charter schools to public schools because it’s very difficult to determine if they are serving similar students. [3] The findings that claim that charter schools have much better outcomes than public schools are often comparing the charter schools to public schools that are serving a much more challenging population of students.

One of the problems with charter schools is that many of them “cream the crop.” In other words, they recruit and retain students and families who are more capable and engaged, or in other words, face fewer challenges, than those in the public schools. Compared to public schools, most charter schools have lower portions of students who are special education students, have English as a second language, or are from low income families. [4] [5] One large national study found that 4.4% of charter school students were English Language Learners compared to 11% of all students. Apart from the roughly 60 charter schools that specifically focus on serving students with disabilities, less than 7% of charter school students have a disability and most of them have mild disabilities. Nationally, 13% of students have disabilities and almost all of those with moderate to severe disabilities are served by public schools. [6]

Another reason that charter schools have better students than the typical public school is that charter schools often weed out the less capable students that initially enroll. For example, they can expel students and never have to worry about them again. The public schools, on the other hand, are required to provide services to all students. Some charter schools have much higher discipline rates than public schools and some of the disciplined students will leave and not return. For example, in Massachusetts, the Holyoke Public Schools had the highest discipline rate of any public school district, suspending 21.5% of its students. At least five other urban districts had suspension rates above 10%. However, two charter schools in Boston had suspension rates of roughly 60%. [7] Overall in Massachusetts, charter schools serve 3% of students but account for 6% of all suspensions and expulsions. [8] These disciplinary practices tend to weed out and send back to the public schools students with behavioral issues.

Charter schools also tend to push out students with poor test scores, sometimes by telling them they will have to repeat a grade if they stay at the school. Many charter schools have declining numbers in their student cohorts as they progress through the grades due to the attrition of weaker students. Therefore, when the cohort gets to graduation or test results in the later grades, the results look quite good.

There have been a series of articles in the New York Times about the Success Academy charter school network in New York City. It is the city’s largest charter school network with 34 schools and plans to grow significantly. The articles highlight the ways Success Academy weeds out weak or difficult students, such as using harsh discipline (its schools suspended 4% to 23% of their students compared to 3% for the public schools) and making parents’ lives so difficult that they withdraw their children. [9]

Charter schools are almost never held accountable for students they enroll but who later leave prior to graduation or completion of the highest grade the school offers. Charter schools also tell some students who are applying but have weak academic skills that they will have to repeat a grade if they enroll. This discourages weak students from even enrolling.

These charter school strategies for creaming the crop leave the public schools with the weakest and most challenging students. Therefore, when comparing student outcomes, the charter schools look good. However, this drives up per student costs in the public schools. If charter schools continue to expand and are allowed to continue creaming the crop, the public schools will be left with students that are ever more challenging, but with less money to serve them due to funding diverted to charter schools.

Therefore, charter schools present real costs to our public school systems where the great majority of students are served. As a result, charter schools undermine the ability of some school districts to provide an education that allows students to realize their potential, most notably large, urban districts with high portions of students facing significant challenges.

Future posts will discuss other problems with charter schools.

[1]       Miron, G., Mathis, W., & Welner, K., 2015, “Review of separating fact & fiction,” National Education Policy Center ( Note: This document is a rebuttal of an advocacy document from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools entitled, “Separating fact & fiction: What you need to know about charter schools.” (

[2]       Levitt, S.D., & Dubner, S.J., 2005, “Freakonomics: A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything,” NY: William Morrow

[3]       Office of the State Auditor, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 2014, “The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s oversight of charter schools,” Published by the author (

[4]       Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, 2014, “At what cost? The charter school model and the human right to education,” Northeastern Law School (

[5]       Office of the State Auditor, 2014, see above.

[6]       Miron, Mathis, & Welner, 2015, see above.

[7]       Taylor, J., Cregor, M., & Lane, P., 2015, “Not measuring up: The state of school discipline in Massachusetts,” Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice (

[8]       Miron, Mathis, & Welner, 2015, see above.

[9]       Taylor, K., 10/29/15, 1/4/16, 1/21/16, 1/23/16, 2/13/16, & 2/16/16, The New York Times (



My previous post described the need for additional funding for schools with high numbers of at-risk children. Current school funding is inequitable because these students require greater resources to be successful than their better-off peers, but the low income communities they tend to live in typically are not able to provide those resources.

Massachusetts responded to the inequitable funding of its public schools in low income communities (highlighted by a court decision in the McDuffy case) by changing its formula for providing state funding to local school districts. The new (and quite complicated) formula, implemented in 1993, provides special funding for districts with high numbers of at-risk students. However, this special funding is inadequate. A 2011 study found, among other things, that the state’s formula underestimates the costs of educating students with special needs by about $1 billion. [1]

The state’s funding formula targets additional resources to meet the needs of low income students by 1) providing funding for 3 extra teachers for every 100 such students, and 2) allocating an extra $380 per low income student to help schools expand instructional time and provide tutoring. However, the 2011 study found little evidence that low income students are receiving these additional instructional supports. The Massachusetts funding formula also provides special funding for students who are English language learners.

Above and beyond this special funding, it was recommended that the funding formula include 1) free, half-day pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten for low income students, and 2) increased pay for teachers in predominantly low income schools. However, funding for these enhancements has never been provided. (In New Jersey, increased funding for pre-kindergarten programs is part of the court-ordered response in a similar case.)

The Massachusetts funding formula estimates that it costs $10,500 to provide an appropriate education for each student in the one-fifth of communities with the lowest income families. The 2011 study found that these low income communities spend almost exactly the state’s estimate of necessary per student spending, using a combination of state and local funding. The state’s estimate for the cost of an appropriate education for each student in higher income communities ranges from $8,500 to $9,500. However, many of the wealthier communities raise additional local revenue and fund their schools at levels significantly above the state’s estimate. The wealthiest one-fifth of school districts spend 39% above the state’s estimate of necessary per student spending.

Therefore, despite the state’s effort to provide a level playing field for all its public schools, high income communities are providing greater levels of resources than low income communities – and dramatically so when adjusted for students’ needs. Furthermore, because of underestimated costs for special education and employees’ health benefits, low income communities actually spend 32% less on regular classroom teachers (not including special education teachers) than the state formula’s target. On the other hand, high income districts spend significantly above targeted levels. This implies that low income school districts must have larger class sizes, less planning and meeting time for teachers during the school day, and/or fewer specialist teachers such as tutors, literacy specialists, language teachers, art teachers, etc. This is the opposite of what the funding formula intended to provide.

A similar pattern is evident in spending on professional development for teachers. The one-fifth of districts with the lowest incomes are only able to spend about half of what the state formula targets for professional development, while the one-fifth highest income districts spend about one-third more than the state target.

The Massachusetts example highlights the difficulty of achieving equitable funding for public schools among high income and low income communities. It is a politically difficult challenge because parents in high income communities have the financial means as well as the time and skills to support and effectively advocate for their children’s schools. They know how to make their voices heard, including through communication with and campaign contributions to elected officials.

If we truly want all our children to succeed in school, we need to find a way to overcome the political challenges of providing equitable funding to schools in low income communities.

[1]     Schuster, L., 2011, “ Cutting Class: Underfunding the Foundation Budget’s Core Education Program,” Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (