The Nation’s Charter Report Card

Paul E. Peterson and M. Danish Shakeel
Year of publication: 
November 14, 2023
Education Next

First-ever state ranking of charter student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress

When Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter-school law in 1991, its main purpose was to improve education by allowing for new, autonomous public schools where teachers would have more freedom to innovate and meet students’ needs. Freed from state regulations, district rules, and—in most cases—collective-bargaining constraints, charter schools could develop new models of school management and “serve as laboratories for new educational ideas,” as analyst Brian Hassel observed in an early study of the innovation. In the words of Joe Nathan, a longtime school-choice advocate and former Minnesota teacher, “well-designed public school choice plans provide the freedom educators want and the opportunities students need while encouraging the dynamism our public education system requires.”

Over the next two decades, 45 additional states and Washington, D.C., passed their own laws establishing charter schools. And by 2020–21, nearly 7,800 charter schools enrolled approximately 3.7 million students, or 7.5 percent of all public-school students nationwide. The most recent charter law was passed in 2023 in Montana, though its implementation has so far been blocked by court order; today, only North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Vermont have not passed charter legislation.

During those years, advocates have carefully tracked and analyzed state policies and enrollments to compare charter school growth, demand, and access across the United States. But to date, there have been no comparisons of charter school performance across states based on student achievement adjusting for background characteristics on a single set of nationally administered standardized tests. Instead, advocacy organizations routinely rank states based on one or more aspects of their charter school programs—factors such as the degree of autonomy charters are afforded, whether they receive equitable funding, and the share of a state’s students they serve. These rankings are informative, but they do not provide direct information about how much students are learning, which is, ultimately, the general public’s and policymakers’ primary concern.

We provide that information here, based on student performance in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, between 2009 and 2019. These rankings, created at the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard University, are adjusted for the age of the charter school and for individual students’ background characteristics. They are based on representative samples of charter-school students in grades 4 and 8 and cover 35 states and Washington, D.C. We also estimate the association between student achievement and various charter laws and characteristics.

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