Equity Issues

Research: Students Who Benefit Most from Charter Schools Are Least Likely to Apply

The students most likely to benefit from attending charter schools rather traditional public schools are less likely to actually attend charter schools, in part because of the way charter school enrollment is structured, according to new research from a University of California Berkeley economist.

Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, those with lower academic achievements and students who are not white are the most likely to benefit academically from attending a charter school, according to Christopher Walters, associate professor of economics at Berkeley. But those same students are less likely to apply to charter schools in Boston Public Schools (BPS).

"Instead," according to a UC Berkeley news release, "BPS charter applicants tend to have higher socioeconomic status and fewer academic problems than students who do not apply to charters, are less likely to qualify for subsidized lunches, to have special education status, or to be classified as limited English proficient."

"In the literature on school choice programs, it is often assumed that higher-benefit kids will be more likely to opt in to these programs," Walters said in a prepared statement, "either because they may be less satisfied with the effectiveness of their other schooling options or because they have some information about whether the program is a good match."

That mismatch between need and attendance may be explained, at least in part, by a decentralized application system for charter schools in the district, according to Walters. In Boston and many other cities, lists of school preferences are centrally maintained for traditional public schools, but students interested in more than one charter school must apply to each school individually. The scattershot application process erects a logistical and bureaucratic barrier that leads to submission of a single application for most charter school hopefuls.

Walters suggested that more outreach to the students most likely to benefit and changes to institutional processes could lead to more representative student populations at charter schools.

"In 2010," according to information released by Berkeley, "Massachusetts passed a law allowing some Boston charter operators to expand to new campuses. As part of this law, schools were also required to increase recruitment efforts for high-need students, as measured by special education, subsidized lunch status and other factors."

Those expansion campuses are more representative and just as effective as their parent schools, according to other research from Walters that has yet to be peer reviewed.

"There is convincing evidence that conditions in early life can affect kids' long-term economic outcomes," Walters said, "so the education system is an area where changes in public policy may have particularly important impacts on inequality. There are also a variety of interesting recent policy experiments in this area and good data sets that can be used to study their effects."

Walter's paper, "The Demand for Effective Charter Schools," will be published in the Journal of Political Economy.

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at jbolkan@gmail.com.

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