Last week, we at Fordham released our latest report on charter schools in Ohio. The research, conducted by Dr. Stéphane Lavertu of The Ohio State University, examines the most up-to-date evidence about the performance of the state’s charter schools, which educate just over 100,000 children.
In a virtual event on Wednesday, Dr. Lavertu presented his findings to over 100 attendees. He began by noting that although charter schools were created to provide families with a high-quality educational choice, the charter sector in Ohio hasn’t always been high performing. Fortunately, this new research indicates that the sector has improved significantly in recent years.
The study focuses on brick-and-mortar, general education charter schools in Ohio from 2016 through 2019. It examines academic achievement, but also non-academic outcomes such as attendance and behavior. By using a variety of statistical methods to compare students who are virtually identical other than their enrollment in a charter or traditional public school, Dr. Lavertu was able to track changes in the outcomes of individual students over time.
The results for charter schools serving students in grades 4–8 are encouraging. In both math and English language arts, the data “indicate greater gains in achievement from year to year for students attending charter schools as opposed to traditional public schools.” If a student were to attend a charter school for five consecutive years, their average achievement in both subjects would be approximately 0.3 standard deviations greater than it would have been if they attended a traditional public school. That’s the equivalent of moving from the 30th to the 40th percentile, and adds up to roughly an extra year’s worth of learning. These effects were largest for low-achieving students, Black students, and students in urban districts. Data on attendance and behavior were also positive.
The results for charter high schools are slightly more complicated due to methodological concerns, but the findings remain encouraging. The analysis examined End of Course exams in math and reading—specifically the English I, English II, Algebra I, and Geometry state exams—as well as the ACT. Results indicate fairly large and significant effects on the English exams. The effects in math were also positive, though not statistically significant. ACT findings were also statistically insignificant, though Dr. Lavertu noted that data limitations may have prevented precise estimates. As was the case with schools serving younger grades, charter high schools demonstrated positive effects in attendance and behavior measures, and overall effects were the largest for students who were low-achieving, Black, or residing in urban districts.
To conclude his remarks, Dr. Lavertu emphasized that his findings point to charter schools as a worthy investment for public tax dollars. “It seems pretty clear that expanding Ohio charter schools could be a highly cost-effective option for improving student outcomes,” he said. He noted that this is particularly true now, as the state struggles to cope with school closures and learning losses brought about by the coronavirus.
The presentation was followed by a question and answer session for event attendees. One question sought to determine whether the charter school improvements reflected in the new report could be attributed to House Bill 2, legislation from 2015 that strengthened accountability for charter schools. “I can’t say it’s because of House Bill 2,” Dr. Lavertu replied. But he did acknowledge that “something happened,” and that it “seems to be the case” that charters have improved since the legislation was passed.
In response to a question about whether the state should invest more dollars in expanding charter schools, Dr. Lavertu said that there is “some encouraging evidence” that points to the impact of increased spending on student outcomes, especially in schools that receive less funding, as charters in Ohio do. However, Dr. Lavertu cautioned that increased investment must be done wisely. “In terms of expansion, I think that has to be done really carefully,” he said. “What you want to do is replicate models that work, make sure that they’re scalable, that there’s a labor supply…and that you’re enrolling the students who need it the most.” Well put, and here’s hoping that the state and local communities continue to create environments suitable for growing great charter schools.