In the most recent National Affairs, Frederick Hess has a very important piece on education reform that everyone should read. His thesis is simple: school choice proponents have focused too much on simply getting more choice in education, and they should be emphasizing the importance of competition. This has led to exaggerated beliefs about what choice alone can accomplish. Here is how he puts it:

The biggest mistake pro-market school reformers have made can thus be put simply: They have mistaken choice for competition. The conviction that school choice constitutes, by itself, a market solution has too often led reformers to skip past the hard work necessary to take advantage of the opportunities that choice-based reform can provide. Choice is merely part of the market equation; equally crucial are the requirements that market conditions permit high-quality or cost-effective suppliers to flourish, that regulation not smother new entrants, and that rules not require inefficient practices or subsidize also-rans.

This is absolutely correct, and as he points out, nobody would argue that choice by itself would constitute sufficient or desirable deregulation in any other government monopolized industry. So following his advice, what can we say about when charter schools work and when they don’t?

Ironically, I think there are a lot of ignored lessons in the charter school study which has produced the number one charter school talking point of the day, “charter schools perform no better on average than public schools”. Read any newspaper article on charters and this fact is highly likely to be there. As I’ve argued before, there are a lot of important truths lying beneath the surface of this quote that I think most people who say it miss. In the study this quote comes from, in some states charter schools perform way better than public schools. Should not the primary lesson from this be that some states have it right, and those that don’t should learn from them? The authors of the study this fact comes from note this fact, pointing out that “results vary strongly by state and are shown to be influenced in significant ways by several characteristics of state charter school policies”

They found three lessons about policies that affect performance:

1. States that have limits on the number of charter schools that can operate performed worse than those that had no caps

2. States with multiple entities that can authorize charters did worse

3. States that allowed appeals to be made in the application or renewal of charter school authorization did better than those that did not

The impacts are significant as well. The study does not say which states do and do not have charter caps but the impact is large enough that removing the cap would make charters not underperform public schools in all but Texas, New Mexico (for math), and Ohio (for math). Again, it’s not clear which states have the cap so we can’t say removing it would actually accomplish this, but the impact of the effect is large enough that it could.

Another important policy implication of this study is that charter schools do outperform public schools nationally for poor students and english language learners. So anytime someone provides you with the quote that “charter schools perform no better on average than public schools”, the response should always be this quote from the study:

In our nationally  pooled  sample, two subgroups fare better in charters than in the traditional system: students in poverty and ELL students.

For a lot of other relevant information about the CREDO study I have a much longer more detailed post here.