Fear Versus Fact: More Facts and Fears About School Choice

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This is the "More Facts and Fears About School Choice" segment from Fears versus facts about school choice: An overview of issues surrounding the effects of competition on public education.

By John Garen, Ph.D.

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More facts and fears about school choice


Aren’t charter schools an oddity?

In a word, “no.” Charter schools have become increasingly common. More than 4,100 charter schools, including 347 new ones, operated during the 2007-08 school year. Charters operate in 40 states and the District of Columbia, and enroll more than 1.2 million students.[1] During the 2004-05 school year, enrollment in charter schools represented 2.33 percent of all enrollment nationwide. But charter enrollment varies considerably throughout states, and in some, it represents a much higher percentage of enrollment. (See Chart 7 for a sampling of states.) Unfortunately, Kentucky has no law even allowing the creation of charter schools.

Percent Charter School Enrollment, Selected States [2]

Do charter schools and vouchers ‘skim the cream?’

A fear often arises that charter schools and vouchers would “skim the cream” by admitting only the best students, leaving the rest for the regular public schools. Concerns about segregation of schools also arise. A report by the U.S. Department of Education strongly dispels these fears.[3]

The report indicates that charter schools, on average, enroll a slightly higher percentage of students eligible for reduced-price lunches. This group typically underperforms other students and represents a lower-income demographic. Also, in the year 2000, 52 percent of charter school students were minorities, compared with 41 percent for public schools.

There is no evidence of “cream skimming” or segregation in charter schools. Additionally, many states have voucher programs specifically aimed at serving students from low-income and disadvantaged households.[4]

Do charter schools ruin traditional public schools?

The claim often arises that charter schools and vouchers would ruin the public school system, but no evidence supports this. In fact, the evidence shows the opposite. Traditional public schools do better when faced with greater competition from charters and vouchers.

For example, Hoxby (2001) presents evidence from Michigan, Arizona and Milwaukee indicating that children in public schools show greater improvement when those schools face more competition from charters and vouchers. Chart 8 shows some of her findings regarding Michigan. Reading and math test scores show greater improvement for both fourth- and seventh-graders among public school students in districts with significant charter school options.

International evidence also supports this conclusion. Sandstrom and Bergstrom (2005) show that the widespread introduction of vouchers in Sweden improved test score results in public schools.

Competition from Charters Improves Public Schools In Michigan [5]

What if more families want charter school space than is available?

Naturally, families become concerned about gaining admission into the school of their choice. In the traditional public school system, moving into a neighborhood with good schools virtually guaranteed that the child would get in. But what if the charter school they want fills up? How do they get in? What alternatives do they have?

Within a system of widespread charters and vouchers, the manner in which children obtain admission to a school may change substantially. However, experience in other contexts shows that markets are remarkably deft at adapting to new situations. One great advantage of charter schools and vouchers is that with sound enabling legislation, new schools can come into the market and expand to accommodate demand. Therefore, parents can readily find the type of school they want. And educational entrepreneurs would take advantage of this because parents bring both students and money into the school.

In fact, evidence suggests that charter schools do this.

It is clear that charter schools have expanded greatly. The U.S. Department of Education (2000) reports that the number of charter schools in the 1990s rose from virtually zero to more than 1,400. As noted, 347 charter schools opened in 2007 alone and now more than 4,100 operate nationwide.

Evidence from the 1990’s (from the U.S Department of Education (2000) strongly stuggests that charters are unique and are not just replacing traditional schools. While some charter schools resulted from conversions of traditional public schools during the 1990s seven of 10 charter schools were not conversions and often differ from traditional schools in enrollment and design. For example, charters are smaller with median enrollment of 137 compared with median enrollment of 475 in public schools. Almost half of charters during this time have a configuration different from the traditional elementary, middle and high school. It seems safe to predict that these distinctive patterns will continue.

These facts indicate charter schools are entering markets to serve unique parent constituencies. In other words, competitive educational markets work well when legislation allows them to do so.

Do charter and voucher students perform well?

Generally speaking, the results of school choice in this regard are positive. Students tend to do better – or at least as well – on achievement tests in voucher programs and charter schools as they do in traditional public schools.[6][7]

However, reaching this conclusion is not as simple as it seems. The ideal data to study this involves comparing the voucher- or charter-student performance to performance if they attended a public school, but the latter outcome is not observed and must be inferred.

Additionally, test scores are not the only criteria that determine student success. Judging by their popularity, parents seem satisfied with school-choice programs across the country. This fact alone ought to speak volumes to policymakers.

More from Fears Versus Facts About School Choice

You can read more from Fears versus facts about school choice: An overview of issues surrounding the effects of competition on public education in the pages below.


  1. Center for Education Reform
  2. Garen, John and Lopes, Carlos, “The Role of a Market Economy in Promoting Economic Well Being: How Is Kentucky Doing?” Kentucky Annual Economic Report, Center for Business and Economic Research, University of Kentucky, 2008.
  3. U.S. Department of Education, “The State of Charter Schools,” 2000, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, January 2000
  4. Enlow, Robert, “Grading School Choice,” Friedman Foundation, February 2008.
  5. Hoxby, Caroline, “Rising Tide,” Education Next, Winter 2001
  6. Hoxby, Caroline and Rockoff, Jonah, “The Impact of Charter Schools on Student Achievement,” May 2005.
  7. Forster, Greg, “Monopoly or Markets: The Empirical Evidence on Private School and School Choice,” Friedman Foundation, October 2007.