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

Comparison of Public Schools and Public Charter Schools in Washington D.C.

People often ask me this question while looking for a better school or shopping for a new home. Which are better for my children – public charter schools or traditional public schools?

I’d like to share with you some research that helps answer this question for you. We’ll use the 2018 PARCC Results that were published by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). I used % scoring 3 plus on PARCC to compare schools’ performances to see which came out on top – charter schools or traditional public schools.

Let’s have a look.

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 schools. 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 drive up the overall public-school score. See Figure 2
  7. Ward 4 had the highest percentage of test-takers, followed by ward 8, and then by wards 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 can be difficult to tell which school type has the best performance (see. Figure 1). But when we look at the ward level statistics (see. Figure 4), we start seeing that charter schools outperform public schools in most of the 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 percentage of white population, whereas the poorer wards have higher percentage 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 in both reading and math. This indicates that these 10 public schools could drive up the combined performance scores of all 108 public schools.


We can also see that the richer neighborhoods tend to have fewer public charter schools. However, we do not see a pattern of a higher number of charter schools in the poorer wards. In fact, two of the poorest wards (7 and 8) account for almost 30% of total PARCC test-takers and in both wards, charter schools outperformed public schools.

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

Policy Consideration: Today’s big policy question is whether to replace traditional public schools with charter schools in poorer areas. After all, charter schools were created to cater to students coming from low-income families.

With such a big gap in the educational performance of these two types of schools, it makes sense to replace public schools with charter schools in poorer neighborhoods.