5 myths about school choice debunked

school choice charter schools

During a town hall meeting in early April, President Trump called public schools “a very rough situation” and their performance statistics “horrific.” This perspective has been echoed by his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who has dubbed some public schools a “dead end.” In response to these criticisms, the president’s proposed budget slashes Department of Education funding by $9.2 billion, cutting funds for after-school programs and teacher training.

Education reformers like DeVos paint a picture of a broken system, one that needs to be overhauled completely. Their suggested overhaul comes in the form of school choice—expanding public funding for charter and private school attendance. While cutting the education budget by 13.5 percent, President Trump added $1.4 billion to expand vouchers for charter and private schools.

But the perception that public schools are failing and that charter schools are the simple solution does not comport with facts. As Jack Schneider reported in his Atlantic piece America’s Not-So-Broken Education System, contrary to popular belief, American public schools have been improving steadily for decades. Instead of facts, certain persistent myths have managed to sneak in and influence the school-choice conversation.

Here, we debunk five of those myths.

MYTH #1: Students attending charter schools report better academic outcomes than those who attend public schools.

FACT: Statistics show that there is no meaningful difference in academic outcomes between charter schools and public schools. It’s a common refrain among some choice advocates: Public schools are less effective at producing well-educated pupils than charter schools. But recent research does not support this claim. Multiple studies by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) reveal that differences in math and reading achievement between public and charter school students are negligible. The New York Daily News found that one percent fewer charter school students achieved proficiency in English in comparison to their public school counterparts. Other studies by institutions like Mathematica Policy Research and American Economic Journal show that while charters benefit low-income students in urban areas, they negatively impact students who aren’t poor.

MYTH #2: Public schools are failing, and the numbers prove it.

FACT: Statistics show that public schools have been slowly and steadily improving for decades. A quick Google search yields an abundance of clickbait headlines with the words “American education” and “failure” in them. However, these articles mostly rely on outliers and apples-to-oranges comparisons to generate their doom and gloom. In reality, over the past 40 years, test scores in reading and mathematics are up nationwide, as much as 25 percent for some groups. While the United States does trail some countries, America scores right on par with the UK, Spain, and France, for example. The number of American high school students that go to college is at an all-time high, and better teacher training has dramatically improved the classroom environment. As Schneider reports, we’re a long way from the days when “some mayor’s half-drunk illiterate uncle was hired to teach twelfth-grade English.”
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MYTH #3: Families leave public schools solely because of academics.

FACT: Academic differences are rarely the sole reason that families choose to leave. While some charter schools are undoubtedly better academically than some public schools (and vice versa), and parents have every right to choose the better of the two, it turns out that decisions to switch are often not rooted solely in academics. In the fall of 2016, the Alief Independent School District in Texas, which serves some 47,000 students, estimated that 2 percent of its enrollment left for charter schools, despite the district’s strong academic record. District leaders doubled down on quality teaching and learning while working to improve the overall customer experience. Less than two years later, many of the families who left the district had returned. Across the country, an increasing number of school leaders confirm that the decision to leave a district is often emotional and, while academics might factor into such a decision, they are hardly the only reason that families leave. The overall school experience, including how parents and families perceive the district and its willingness to listen to their concerns, matters big time.

MYTH #4: School choice options strengthen public schools through competition.

FACT: Choice does create competition. But, in some cases, it can also hurt public schools by gutting their budgets and stymying their growth. Any motivation provided by competition from charter schools is outweighed by the loss of resources they cause. The LA Unified School District, the second-largest school system in the nation, loses millions in per pupil funding per year due to charters. In Michigan, school districts have lost an estimated 22 percent of their funding due to pressure from charter schools, according to recent reports. The loss has left Michigan public education in a state of “extreme fiscal distress,” said one researcher whose comments from an interview on the topic appeared in the Washington Post.

MYTH #5: School choice improves the education of poor and minority students.

FACT: Minority communities are increasingly questioning the role of school choice. Though many minority communities support school choice, that’s changing. Last year, both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter took firm positions against charter schools, calling for a moratorium on new ones opening in black communities. They believe that charter schools, usually run by outsiders, disrupt the natural development of the communities and say some charters operate in a “missionary-like” manner. “The push to improve academic achievement has led to black schools being closed, black teachers losing their jobs and being devalued,” Howard Fuller, a former superintendent of Milwaukee schools told Education Week. “It’s not possible for this type of change to occur and for there not to be division.”

School choice is a concept that’s here to stay. It’s hard to argue the inherent benefits of a family’s ability to choose the brand of education that best suits the needs of the individual child. But myths such as the ones outlined above only serve to further escalate the “us versus them” rhetoric that pervades the national conversation on school choice. By setting the record straight here and elsewhere, the hope is that we can move the conversation forward, from charter versus public to what’s best for students and families.

Have you been forced to confront any of these myths in your school or district? What steps are your schools taking to stay competitive in the age of choice? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author

Isaac Simpson
Isaac is a contributor to TrustED.

12 Comments on "5 myths about school choice debunked"

  1. Linda Wegner | May 2, 2017 at 8:44 pm | Reply

    Thank you for laying out the facts because I keep hearing all of these myths!

  2. Mary Ellen Wessels | May 2, 2017 at 8:48 pm | Reply

    I work at an arts-integrated charter school. We are not for profit. We try to have a very good relationship with the local districts that our kids comes from. Yes, I’d be happier if we were a public school, but I don’t know if we could manage the small class size we have then. Not all Charter Schools are bad.

  3. David Greenberg | May 3, 2017 at 1:20 am | Reply

    I think your take on these “myths” is reasonable in most cases; however, you have perpetuated other myths in the process. First, charter schools are public schools. Making comparisons between public schools and charter schools makes no sense. You should use the language of public district schools and public charter schools. While some charter schools are managed by private non-profit or for-profit organizations, the majority are not. Second, it makes no sense to say the federal government is expanding vouchers for charter schools. Charter schools are public and free – no vouchers needed. Third, you say that school choice is about more than academics – of that there is no doubt. But saying that the choice to leave a district school is “often emotional” devalues the choices that families (and often families of color) make and implies that somehow they are bad choices.

  4. Natasha Carter | May 3, 2017 at 4:28 pm | Reply

    As a parent who chose a charter elementary school for my children, I cannot reiterate enough that academics is NOT the only thing driving a parent’s decision in their choice of school. More important than academics is parent/family engagement. When I was looking at different schools for my oldest, I visited many schools. I called and made appointments ahead of time, spoke with the principal etc. Some public schools expressed shock/surprise/disbelief that I wanted to come check out the school first. When I arrived at the charter school, I was greeted warmly, met the registrar who took me to visit selected grades where we spent 10 – 15 mins. observing the teacher and the class, and patiently answered all my questions. At several of the public schools, I was handed a map of the school grounds, told to go to classroom #___, and when I arrived, the teacher looked surprised to see me and it was obvious wasn’t informed that he/she would have a visitor that morning. I chose the charter school. However, when my daughter was in 7th grade, it became obvious that the charter school was no longer meeting her academic needs or she needed a different approach to learning so I explored the public middle school. Again, it wasn’t specifically the academics that sold me, although that factored into the equation, but the principal’s engaging manner, and willingness to take time to give me a tour and answer my questions. In the school districts in Northern California, where I live, family engagement is not an area the public schools do well. Partially because they are larger than the charter schools, but it is something that our school districts are now, thankfully, focusing on. As a parent, I chose a charter school for my children, but have no qualms going back to public school if the school met their needs better. However, that decision is still very much influenced by the personal interactions I receive at the school.

  5. Natasha Carter | May 3, 2017 at 4:31 pm | Reply

    I wanted to add that David Greenberg’s comments are spot on. Yes, let’s not forget charter schools ARE public schools.

  6. elizabeth rubenstein | May 6, 2017 at 10:26 pm | Reply

    I wish there were mention here of the distinction between PUBLIC Charter Schools, created by parent groups to support the needs of the community versus CORPORATE/PRIVATE Charter Companies (Summit, Aspire, Edison, etc) that run many schools in pursuit of profit.

  7. “Other studies by institutions like Mathematica Policy Research and American Economic Journal show that while charters benefit low-income students in urban areas, they negatively impact students who aren’t poor.”
    This statement from Myth No 1 is very curious….. Do we NOT want to benefit low income students in urban areas??? Sounds rather discriminatory to me!

  8. It would have been better if charters schools (public or private) are at least spawned at public school areas as complimentary services (their schools provide services lacking in public schools or present a truly alternative or progressive approach vetted by the schools, parents and the union). Private schools are already a competitive choice per se but not an equal provider compared to public schools…they are PRIVATE after all…they set their own limits in services and the manner it is provided adhering only to basic requirements of law to protect the safety and health of children but not their RIGHT to be there. In the other hand public schools cannot be “choosy”…they can even enroll your transferred-in child on the very last day of school…because they are required to by law. If this sounds confusing why don’t you read a bit more on FAPE…Free and Appropriate Public Education.

    I have yet to see a private or charter setting not remove a student on some technicality because their behavior does not fit the school culture and maybe they will be better served in a different environment to support their behavior or disability (happily keeping the public funding given to them on behalf of that student)…or…their PUBLIC SCHOOLS have the therapeutic services to address these so called behavior or disability needs…lol!

  9. Larry Hamilton | May 14, 2017 at 9:22 pm | Reply

    I want to dispute these 5 myths but I don’t know where I want to start. I came from a private religious school because my parents were not pleased with what I was learning in school. I’m 60 years old now, so this argument has been going on for a long time. I’ve substitute taught for 11 years in three districts and I see a lot of distractions and apathy in the public schools despite the many excellent teachers within the districts. My wife and I homeschooled our three kids and they all excel in the workplace in their fields. It’s my belief that the public schools need transforming. I also believe that the Department of Education is a useless government entity. I’m for more free market competition in the school system. These 5 Myths don’t address private schools or home school options that are currently out there. This is my opinion, for what it is worth.

  10. Charter schools don’t show much improvement over regular “public” schools because, they mostly model the same top-down, teacher controlled model – only giving choice to a bit more involvement by parents. Any time you get parents making a choice, there’s bound to be a higher level of satisfactions. Academics, however, don’t change, because the model of conventional teaching doesn’t much change. for example, “Montessori” charter schools are set up and run according to the academic model of conventional top-down, controlled state curriculum, NOT the parameters that allow for true natural development in children. Sometimes, the state control even restricts the age-range diversity; and quite often, the “certification” of teachers is controlled by the teacher’s union which makes sure that only conventional training institutions are approved. So, you get only a superficial diversity, not the diversity of substance in instructional approach. Until the government gets more fully out of its control of education, you will NOT get real choice by parents – so even private schools are controlled by rigid, interfering regulations, that make real choice difficult if not impossible. End compulsory schooling altogether – de-centralize control of state education – allow more experimentation at the local community level, and you’ll begin to see differences that show a great difference to the good. I speak from experience, having tried to start a charter school in Washington, DC. The system is rigged.

  11. M. Alberto Medina | May 18, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Reply

    “School” is an essential support system for a vision of social engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a pyramid that narrows to a control point as it ascends. “School” is an artifice which makes such a pyramidal social order seem inevitable (although such a premise is a fundamental betrayal of the American Revolution). In colonial days and through the period of the early Republic we had no schools to speak of. And yet the promise of democracy was beginning to be realized. We turned our backs on this promise by bringing to life the ancient dream of Egypt: compulsory training in subordination for everybody. Compulsory schooling was the secret Plato reluctantly transmitted in the Republic when he laid down the plans for total state control of human life.
    We do have a choice in how we bring up young people; there is no right way. There is no “international competition” that compels our existence, difficult as it is to even think about in the face of a constant media barrage of myth to the contrary. In every important material respect our nation is self-sufficient. If we gained a non-material philosophy that found meaning where it is genuinely located — in families, friends, the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and service to others, in a decent independence and privacy — then we would be truly self-sufficient!!!
    Thoughts From John Taylor Gatto, New York State Teacher of the Year, 1991

  12. Scott Ahrens | May 18, 2017 at 5:05 pm | Reply

    I appreciate you informing us and adding perspective to the discussion, yet by doing so are you opposed to allowing parents this option or the idea of school vouchers. Some ideas regarding public schools may be misguided or based on poor information but none the less it’s a parent deciding whats best for their child. In some cases the information regarding their local school may in fact be accurate.

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