What Does This New Study Mean for the Future of Charter School Giving?

The big promise behind the charter school movement since its beginnings in 1991, was that these schools would increase student achievement, especially for socioeconomically disadvantaged students and students of color. Since the first charter schools opened in Minnesota, the movement has spread rapidly across the country.

Fueled by state legislation and philanthropic dollars from some of the nation’s largest funders, charters promised to raise student test scores and greater levels of college preparedness. A growing number of studies — both independent and funder-backed — have found that many charter schools do indeed boost student test scores.

This is encouraging, as a rich body of research recognizes a strong link between academic achievement and lifetime earnings in the labor market. So one might expect that charter schools would be associated with greater employment and earnings among their graduates.

Not so much, it turns out. At least, that’s what a new study by two economists suggests.

Using data from charter schools in Texas, Princeton’s Will Dobbie and Harvard’s Roland Fryer found that while charter schools improve student test scores and rates of enrollment in four-year colleges, those academic outcomes have not translated into better jobs or earnings. This finding held true for even the highest-performing charters, which many policy-makers point to as models for K-12 education nationwide. The study, “Charter Schools and Labor Market Outcomes,” was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in July. It's been making waves ever since. 

A particular segment of the charter school universe — sometimes referred to as “no excuses” charter schools — have shown particular success in boosting student scores. These schools emphasized high academic standards, a rigorous code of student conduct, student uniforms, strict discipline, and extended school hours and days. Examples of "no excuses" charter schools include KIPP, YES Preparatory, and the Aspire charter school network. Both KIPP and YES have schools in Texas and were part of the study by Dobbie and Fryer. The authors found that these and other advocates of the "no excuses" approach increase student test scores and college enrollment, but have only small, statistically insignificant impacts on earnings.

Needless to say, these findings are at odds with the larger body of research on educational and labor market outcomes. They also pose important implications for charter schools, one of the most significant K-12 innovations of the last 30 years and one supported by some of the country’s most prominent education philanthropists.

While multiple funders have supported charter schools, Walton Family Foundation stands out as one of the most enthusiastic supporters. Walton has poured hundreds of millions over the years into the development and expansion of many charter schools. It also funds research and policy advocacy around charter schools, and the funder shows no sign of slowing down. Walton began 2016 with an announcement that it would commit up to $1 billion over the next five years to grow new charter schools and keep existing ones operating.

Not be outdone, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation wants to expand the charter school landscape in Los Angeles. The funder hopes that Los Angeles will join New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; and Detroit as cities in which the majority of school children are enrolled in charters. 

It is important to consider that research examining the relationship between charter schools and labor market outcomes is young. It is only recently that charters have been around long enough to even gauge their long-term impact — and even then, only in “early adopter” states like Texas, which authorized its first charter schools in 1995.

While the Dobbie and Fryer study was limited to one state, it is important to consider that the Lone Star State is the home of some of the nation’s best-known charter schools. KIPP, one of the nation’s largest charter school organizations, began in 1994 with two schools: in New York City and Houston. The possibility remains, however, that the results could be a fluke that say something about schools in Texas rather than about charters as a whole.

The answer lies in further research. As time passes, and states that authorized charter schools later have more years under their belts, further study of the connection between charters' educational outcomes and the career achievements of their graduates will be possible.

All of this is good news for education scholars and policy wonks. Research has an important place in the education grant-making of many funders, including Walton and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, another favorite among charter school advocates.

Other possible explanations exist for the findings of this study. The Boston Globe suggested the reason could be that charter schools achieve their successes through an instructional "drill and kill" approach that focuses on tests to the exclusion of building skills in other ways, such as through arts and humanities instruction. While nobody disputes the value of solid skills in reading and math — the kind measured by standardized assessments — they should not come at the expense of such analytical, creative, problem-solving, and teamwork skills. These are among the skills most valued by employers, according to a 2014 report by Forbes.

Yet a 2013 study suggested that some charter schools, especially the “no excuses” type, with their emphasis on discipline and order, have created overly submissive young men and women who may be less able to function effectively in work environments that value critical thinking and decision-making. 

A lack of social capital among low-income minority youth for overcoming obstacles in the job market is a more obvious possible reason why academic achievements may not lead to career success. Getting a strong education is one thing; getting ahead professionally when you may be coming from generations of poverty is something else entirely. Of course, this is a point that critics of the ed reform movement have long been making: That better schools will only get kids so far in an America with pervasive inequality. 

With tens of thousands of families on waiting lists to enroll their children and funders committing millions in new grants, charter schools will continue to grow across the country. Their success in student testing may be well established, but this new study at least suggests there is room for improvement in other areas not so easily measured by standardized assessments. Nonprofits with ideas to integrate more art, music, creative writing, and even recess into the school day may want to tailor their programs to charter settings. The same goes for organizations focused on career preparation activities and building social capital to help disadvantaged youth.

Funders, meanwhile, should pay close attention to this study’s findings and examine their funding strategies and grant-making efforts around charter schools to ensure they are fostering an educational environment that will produce more than successful test-takers.