President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has advocated for expanding the use of school vouchers and increasing the number of charter schools, a position that excites school choice advocates but worries proponents of traditional public schools. If DeVos moves forward with these ideas on a national scale, we must better understand the effects of charter school growth on students and the communities they live in.
Charter schools are publicly funded schools governed by an independent board through a contract or charter with the state or school district. Charter schools were established in the early 1990s to encourage innovation and competition. Schools that don’t work would be closed, and successful ones would remain open or expand. While some school districts have created opportunities for traditional public schools and charters to collaborate, others have fostered a culture of competition. Today, charter schools serve about 2.5 million students in over 6,000 schools, nationally.
We recently examined charter school openings and closings between the 2012–13 and 2013–14 school years and found that charter schools represent a disproportionate number of school closings and newly opening schools. About 300 charter schools in operation in fall or 2012 were closed by fall 2013, while about 500 new charters opened that same year. Charter schools are more likely than traditional schools to open and more likely to close. Charters represent 7 percent of continually open schools but 17 percent of closed schools and 40 percent of new schools. Traditional public schools, on the other hand, make up 91 percent of open schools, 65 percent of closed schools, and 81 percent of new schools.
While examining closures and openings is only part of evaluating charter schools’ effects, the churn of charter school innovation is an important factor for DeVos and policymakers to consider, particularly because certain students and communities are more likely to experience the effects of charter school turnover:
Charter schools that close are less likely to be in suburban areas; suburban charter schools make up 51 percent of continuously open charters, but only 44 percent of closed charters.
- Charter schools that close serve higher proportions of black students, but lower proportions of white and Hispanic students. In urban, suburban, and rural areas, black students are disproportionately affected by charter closures.
- Charter schools that close serve higher proportions of students receiving free and reduced-price meals than charter schools that remain open.
Additionally, the communities surrounding closed charter schools differ from the communities surrounding charter schools that do not close. The neighborhoods surrounding closed charter schools had higher poverty rates, lower median home values, higher shares of black residents, and lower shares of Hispanic and Asian residents. Though it’s impossible to tell from these data whether the neighborhood factors are causes or consequences of charter closures, the data do demonstrate that charters are closing in neighborhoods that already have less opportunity.
While we know who is being affected by charter school closures and where they are, the evidence is limited on what charter openings and closings means for these students and communities. Urban’s past research on this issue suggests that charter schools and other choice strategies are likely to affect neighborhood social cohesion by affecting the amount of time that children and adults spend together. Additionally, we hypothesize that charter schools and other choice strategies are likely to affect neighborhood change and gentrification by influencing where families decide to live and send their children to school.
Many questions remain.
If DeVos wants to expand charter schools and voucher programs, we need more research to better understand the effects of school churn on students and neighborhoods. DeVos must adopt and expand evidence-based education policies that support students without harming the communities where students live.