If I Had a Billion Dollars: Charter Schools

by Site Author

Every year, Americans donate millions of dollars to good causes. The money goes to hospitals, universities, homeless shelters, and so on. You have to wonder whether all of that money could be better spent elsewhere. If nothing else, couldn’t the $500 million donated every year to Harvard, do more good elsewhere?

So join me in the following exercise. Suppose that you’re a billionaire, and would like to donate all of your money to a good cause within the US. Where would your money do the most good?

Here’s one answer: charter schools.

In many disadvantaged neighborhoods, the public schools are terrible. Low-income parents have no choice, however, but to send their kids to the local public school. It is against the law to send your kids to a better public school. Consider, for instance, the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar, an Ohio mom who lied about her residency so that her daughters would be sent to a better school. She spent three days in jail.

It doesn’t seem fair that children are forced to attend lousy schools. And so, over the past few decades, private organizations have opened charter schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods as an alternative to public schools. Charter schools typically have longer school days, are not covered by teachers’ unions, and tend to experiment with alternative teaching methods.

Typically, charter schools get more applicants than they can admit. So they run a lottery, and applicants who win the lottery get to enroll.

A group of economists recently noticed that the lotteries are really randomized controlled trials in disguise. And, in a recent paper, they compared the outcomes of the winners of the lottery to the losers of the lottery.

The authors found that urban charter schools led to huge gains in math test scores. Lottery winners ended up with math test scores that were 0.4 standard deviations higher than lottery losers. That effect size is large enough to nearly wipe out the entire black-white test score gap.

Another recent study focused on the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City. The authors ended up with similar conclusions; the Harlem Children’s Zone seems to dramatically raise test scores.

Many charter schools—though certainly not all—seem to have a lasting, positive effect on their students. Currently researchers are trying to tease apart exactly why some charter schools are so effective while others are not. And it is not obvious whether these charter schools can scale: whether you can just open up more of these schools and get the same benefit for the overall population.

Still, the research so far is pretty encouraging. Charter schools seem to work. And, of course, the schools gladly accept donations.