There are good charter schools and bad charter schools. But even the bad charter schools can do good, because they provide data.
One of the underplayed benefits of broad national experimentation with charter schools is that having lots of schools trying lots of different educational philosophies means lots of fodder for folks like education scholars Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer. They write:
Charter schools were developed, in part, to serve as an R&D engine for traditional public schools, resulting in a wide variety of school strategies and outcomes. In this paper, we collect unparalleled data on the inner-workings of 35 charter schools and correlate these data with credible estimates of each school's effectiveness.
Their new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that fretting about class size and per-pupil spending may be misguided, whereas teacher quality and classroom culture actually matter:
We find that traditionally collected input measures—class size, per pupil expenditure, the fraction of teachers with no certification, and the fraction of teachers with an advanced degree—are not correlated with school effectiveness. In stark contrast, we show that an index of five policies suggested by over forty years of qualitative research—frequent teacher feedback, the use of data to guide instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations—explains approximately 50 percent of the variation in school effectiveness.
Of course, kids in bad charter schools deserve better than to just become data points in an economics paper. But hey, that's the nice thing about school choice—they choose try a different school next year. Plus, properly implemented school choice means charters that consistently fail to serve students and their parents can, and should, lose their charters and shut down. Their peers in places where a neighborhood public school is the only choice aren't so lucky.
Lots more on school choice, including last week's School Choice Week video extravaganza here.