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Charter schools in Texas are improving faster than public schools

Students at a KIPP charter school in California. "No excuses" schools like KIPP have become more common in Texas.
Students at a KIPP charter school in California. "No excuses" schools like KIPP have become more common in Texas.
Michael Buckner/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Charter schools nationally are about as good as traditional public schools at educating students, at least when it comes to standardized test scores.

But new research on Texas charter schools found that, over a decade, the charter schools got better at increasing student test scores, improving faster than traditional public schools.

The research, from Patrick Baude, Marcus Casey, and Steven Rivkin from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Eric Haunshek, from Stanford University's Hoover Institution, was published in working paper form by the National Bureau of Economic Research. It suggests that competition among charter schools worked to improve quality: low-quality schools are driven out of business, and high-quality schools are opening in their place.

Better charter schools are replacing low-quality ones

The charter schools that get the most press are often also the most successful. The pro-charter documentary Waiting for "Superman" followed students trying to enroll at well-known charter schools like Success Academy or the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). But those schools, whose mostly disadvantaged students score high on standardized tests, are the exception. Nationally, charter schools perform about as well as traditional public schools — which means that for every student attending a KIPP or a Success Academy school, there are students in schools with much worse track records.

This was particularly true in Texas, which was early to the charter school movement. Early charter schools in the state simply weren't very good, perhaps because their operators had little experience in public education. While quality varied widely, in 2001, charter schools on the whole were worse than public schools at improving test scores.

But many of those early charter schools have since closed, and the newer charter schools that have replaced them are better, the researchers found. They looked at value-added scores, which measure students' improvement on standardized tests in math and reading, rather than the raw scores, to avoid penalizing schools where students started with lower levels of achievement.

In part, the improvement is because "no excuses" schools like KIPP have become much more common in Texas. Those schools have high expectations — that all students will maintain good attendance, and that they'll all aim to go to college — but also have stricter rules for discipline and sometimes require parents to make commitments in order for their children to attend.

The researchers found those schools were particularly effective at raising test scores. And they've become more common: about 38 percent of charter school students now attend "No Excuses" schools, up from 18 percent in 2001.

Charter schools also may have improved because they're more selective than public schools about who can attend. While admission is done through a lottery, charter schools attract students and parents who are interested in that school. They also are sometimes more likely to suspend, expel, or force out students with discipline problems.

The researchers say these selection effects matter, because previous research has found that students' peers have an effect on their classroom performance. And they suggested that greater stability in charter school classrooms — students were less 20 percent likely to transfer in and out in 2011 than a decade earlier — also led to improvements in test scores.

Charter schools in Texas are catching up to traditional schools after a decade. Is this a good thing?

The authors frame their results as good news for charter schools: they're improving over time, and the choices parents can make about where students can attend seems to be driving low-quality schools out of business.

But there's another way to interpret the results. For years, Texas allowed charter schools to operate that were inferior to traditional public schools, and it took more than a decade for the charters to catch up.  That means that for years, students attended low-quality schools despite their lackluster results.

Charter schools don't necessarily need a 10-year window to be successful. While they have only now caught up to traditional public schools in Texas, they've been outperforming them for years in other places, including Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., that passed charter school laws around the same time. That suggests Texas could have learned some lessons from more successful states.

The authors dismiss the decade of poor quality as "growing pains" that are inescapable when inexperienced charter school operators enter a market. But the experience probably seems different to the students and families who attended those schools, and it's worth asking if there isn't a better way to ensure quality without waiting a decade.