Public School or Public Charter School: Which One is Better?

  • My friends, families, and colleagues usually ask me this question when they are looking for better quality schools for their children or shopping for new homes: Which school is better: Charter or traditional public schools? This question is my prime motivation for this research. I will answer this question using 2018 PARCC Results that was published by Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). I used % scoring 3 plus on PARCC to compare schools’ performances and to summarize results throughout this article.

Results Overview:

  1. Charter Schools outperformed Public Schools on Reading (aka. ELA) by 1% (DCPCS: 54% vs DCPS: 53%). See Figure 1
  2. Charter Schools and Public Schools both scored 50% on Math. See Figure 1
  3. Median performances on Math and Reading were lower for public schools. See Figure 2
  4. Interquartile range (difference between 75th percentile and 25th percentile) was higher for public schools on both Reading and Math indicating that the variance is higher in public schools. See Figure 2
  5. Ward 3 doesn’t have any charter school, still 10.4% of all test takers came from this ward. See Figure 3 and 5
  6. Most of the schools from ward 3 are clustered towards the higher end of the performance distribution, suggesting that the public schools from this ward could solely drive overall score of public schools upward. See Figure 2
  7. Ward 4 had the highest percentage of test takers, followed by ward 8, and then by ward 5, 6 and 7. See Figure 3
  8. Ward 2 had the lowest percentages of test takers, with 1.4% from charter schools. See Figure 3

Figure 1: % 3+ on PARCC Assessment by School Types

Figure 2: Boxplot Chart Illustrating Distribution of % 3+ on PARCC Assessment

Figure 3: Distribution of % Test Takers by Ward

 Public School or Charter School?

At the highest aggregation level, it is difficult to tell which school type is better (see. Figure 1). But, when we look at the ward level statistics (see. Figure 4), we start seeing that Public Charter Schools outperform Public Schools in many wards.

Winners/Losers – Reading/ELA:

–      Charter Schools are winners in the following wards: 2, 4, 5, 7, 8

–      Public Schools are winners in the following ward: 6

Winners/Losers – Math:

–      Charter Schools are winners in the following wards: 2, 4, 5, 7, 8

–      Public Schools are winners the following wards: 1, and 6

Figure 4: Performance by Ward (% scoring 3 or higher on PARCC)

Could Ethnicity and Income level determine the quality of Public Schools?

According to Census Data, Ward 3 is the most affluent ward in DC; whereas Ward, 7 and Ward 8 are the poorest ones (see. Figure 5). Interestingly, wards with the higher median income have higher % of white population, whereas the poorer wards have higher % of black population.

Figure 5: Demographic by Ward, and the Counts of Schools in Each Ward

Ward 3 accounts for 10.4% of all tested students (see figures 3) in DC. It also is the richest ward. (figure 5). There are 10 public schools in this ward, most of which performed above 75th percentile on both reading and math. It indicates that these 10 public schools can solely drive the average performance of all 108 public schools upward.

We also see a pattern that the richer neighborhoods have fewer public charter schools, but, we do not see a pattern of higher number of charters schools in the poorer wards. Two of the poorest wards (7 and 8) account for almost 30% of total PARCC test takers where charter schools outperformed public schools.

 Conclusion: 2018 PARCC performance data indicates that if you live in a rich neighborhood, with higher percentage of white population, then you may not see performance gap between public schools or charter schools; however, if you live in a poorer neighborhood with higher percentage of African American population, charter schools outperform traditional public schools.

Policy Consideration: Whether to replace traditional public schools with the charter school in the poorer neighborhoods or wards is today’s big policy question. After all, charter schools were created to cater to students coming from families with low income. Given such a big gap in the performances in delivering higher quality education, it makes sense to replace public schools with charter schools in poorer neighborhoods.