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Traditional Versus Charter Public School Productivity

Traditional Versus Charter Public School Productivity

Lately I have written or read news releases about the short comings of public schools compared to alternative public education, such as publically paid private school vouchers and charter schools. I spent one year at a local charter school, so something about the topic fascinates me.

The charter school I attend was, at the time, just for high school students. The founder and superintendent believed in proper college preparation, particularly for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.  I was there for the second year the school was in existence, and there was a constant financial battle. Charter schools receive much less money from the state than traditional public schools, and this school survived its first couple years on supportive families and standardized test scores that beat the rest of the state. Ten years since its inception, the school manages a long waiting list and plans to expand.

Wolf, Patrick

Patrick Wolf, 21st Century Endowed Chair in School Choice in the department of education reform

The key concept to note here is that the school survives on less funding per student than a regular public school. A recent study conducted in part by Patrick Wolf, Distinguished Professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas, compared cost-effectiveness of charter schools to traditional schools in 28 states. When comparing test scores to finances invested per student, charter schools average 41 percent higher in reading and 40 percent higher in math. Granted, many of these charter schools scored lower than traditional schools, but charter schools score better per buck.

Not only can charter schools prove to be more cost-effective, but many consider them more capable of providing quality education in low-performing districts. In 2010, which USA Today columnist Greg Toppo called “the year of the education documentary,” many films addressed the issue of underperforming schools in urban areas. Davis Guggenheim, best known as the director of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, directed a documentary that suggested that charter schools are the best chance some urban children have at a “good” education.

I have no doubt the topic of charter schools will continue to stir policy debates. However, something to consider from my examples is how charter schools manage their finances and students. Yes, charter schools seem to have a cost-effectiveness trend. Yes, charter schools appear favorable to parents concerned about their child’s education.

But who attends these schools? Students with parents who prioritize education. In the charter school I attended, each student either wanted to learn or had a parent that was willing to take that extra step to make their child do well academically. That is likely where the effectiveness in charter schools stems from. Students who either do not focus on their grades, or belong to families who do not encourage academic success, will remain in traditional public schools. While many other factors come into play, from my experiences in both systems, student attitude determines the quality of a classroom education.

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