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The charter school movement is premised on the idea that, if independent operators create differentiated and innovative schooling options, families will benefit from making meaningful choices among those options that reflect their preferences. Charters are freed from many of the constraints traditional public schools face, allowing them to implement distinct academic models, school cultures, or curricular focuses that appeal to a subset of families. The consistent growth of charter schools, which now constitute one in 14 public schools nationwide, provides some evidence of the popularity of these options. However, it has been difficult to gauge how much differentiation there is in charter school models nationwide and how substantive it is.
This paper attempts to shed light on these questions. Looking at charter schools across the nation, we use the content on charter schools’ websites to identify their academic models. Nearly half of charter schools had a specialized academic model, and these were further divided into a dozen specific categories. These nonexclusive categories included no-excuses schools, schools focused on arts or STEM education, and schools focused on vocational education.
Simply categorizing schools offers some insight into charter schools’ differentiation, but it tells little about whether the categories of schools differ meaningfully from one another and from traditional public schools (TPSs) near them. To examine the substance of these differences, we looked at the student composition of charter schools with each academic model. Student compositions of charters with a given academic model that differ systematically from those of charters with other models or from those of the TPSs near them suggest meaningful differentiation, even if parents’ preferences for specific schooling options are not tightly aligned to demographics.
The data show that charter academic models have substantive differences in student composition. Charters in each category have student compositions that are internally consistent. They are located in areas with distinct demographic contexts, with some models concentrated in relatively advantaged areas and others concentrated in relatively disadvantaged areas. Within a given academic model, charters display student compositions that differ from the TPSs located nearest them, and in many cases these patterns of differences are uniform. Across academic models, these patterns of differences are more distinct, suggesting that these models differ in meaningful ways that attract different kinds of students.
These data provide new information about the charter sector across the United States. While they are far from the last word on parents’ preferences and student compositions, they are consistent with the theory that distinct schooling options provide families with meaningful educational choice.
The premise behind the charter school movement is that allowing independent groups, instead of public school districts, to operate public schools will promote differentiated and innovative options for families. Because charter school operators are freed from many of the constraints facing traditional public schools (TPSs), they can design unique instructional models, school cultures, or curricula that may appeal to some but not all families. From there, families can choose the schools that best fit their children’s needs. The rapid expansion of charter schools, which now constitute more than one in 14 public schools nationwide, is a testament to the popularity of those choices.
All families want their children to attend good schools, but families define a good school differently. In 2013, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute examined these preferences in What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade-Offs.1 This survey asked more than 2,000 parents what they valued in educational choices. The responses indicated that all families valued a strong academic program, but beyond that they valued different things. Some families placed a premium on career and technical education, while some prioritized a diverse student body. Some looked for a focus on music or the arts, while others preferred a focus on citizenship.
Matching varied preferences requires differentiated school options, and charter schools are one avenue for creating them. Charter operators can design many different academic models, such as arts, no excuses (which have strict expectations for student behavior and discipline), and STEM (which focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In 2015, the AEI report Measuring Diversity in Charter Schools outlined 14 different models to encompass all charter schools in 17 metro areas.2 The following year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools applied these models to all charters nationwide.3
Because many charter schools intentionally provide more specialized options than TPSs, they often attract a different subset of families. As a result, there can be dramatic differences in student composition between charter schools and TPSs. In 2016, the AEI report Differences on Balance: National Comparisons of Charter and Traditional Public Schools detailed how often and by how much the student composition of charter schools differed from neighboring TPSs.4 The report revealed that the students in charter schools often differed substantially, in terms of student poverty, race, disability, and other measures, from those in nearby TPSs, but not in uniform ways.
In this paper, we examine the student compositions in charter schools with different academic models. Specifically, we compare student compositions across charter school models and between charter schools with a given model and the TPSs near them. These comparisons answer three questions:
The answers to these questions provide new information about differentiation in the charter sector. While none of these data support causal relationships, they can show whether differences in student compositions across charter academic models are consistent with the theory of action behind the charter school movement. They can also provide a more granular look at how charter schools’ compositions differ from those of their neighboring TPSs.
The remainder of the report is divided into three sections. The next section overviews the methods and data used to classify charter schools into academic models and to compare charter schools to their neighboring TPSs. The following section presents our findings. The concluding section discusses what these findings tell us about the charter school sector and how they can inform public discussion around charter schools.
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