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Charter Schools Showcase the Power of Educational Freedom

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Public schools are losing students to charter education, and government officials are doing whatever they can to bail them out.

On March 6th, Colorado House Bill 1363 was proposed. The legislation included several anti-charter school reforms, including decreasing funding and allowing public schools with declining enrollment to prohibit new charter schools within the district. However, with the proposal being denied, public schools remain helpless to the rampant success of charter education.

Over the past four years, charter schools have gained 300,000 students, while public schools have lost 1.5 million. 45 states have passed legislation legalizing charter schools, and each has seen student enrollment steadily increase in response. Why are charter schools growing while public schools are shrinking?

First, public schools assign students by their district of residence. This means switching public schools requires physically moving to the preferred area, which is a prohibitive cost to many families. Students are all too often stuck in a poor educational environment without a viable alternative.

Additionally, since public school funding is strongly correlated to the wealth of the district, students in poor areas usually only have access to a lower-quality public school. In 2024, a Connecticut study found that Greenwich, a wealthy district, spent $24,922 per student compared to the $6,597 provided by Bridgeport, a relatively poor district. On average, public schools in high-poverty districts receive $2,710 less per student than their private counterparts.

Even when schools receive sufficient funds, in classic government fashion, they’re often wasted on inefficient ends. Of the $189 billion of public school relief given out during the pandemic, vast amounts were spent on electric school buses, renovating athletic facilities, and adding more office staff. Instead of heavily investing in teachers or improved educational services, public schools focused on cursory, aesthetic expenditures. Only 37% of schools spent any relief money on regular, individual tutoring.

These problems stem from public schools’ poor incentive structure. Since children are constrained to their district’s school, the productive effects of free-market competition aren’t allowed to take hold. Schools don’t have to improve because their consumer base (students) have no choice but to purchase their product (attend their school).

Charter schools are the secret sauce to resolving public school inefficiency. Charter schools are educational institutions that are publicly funded while still being independently run. Families are free to choose which school to attend based on their individual requirements, values, and preferences. Charter schools are not district-based, and are generally free to attend. As long as you live within the state of residence, and there is enrollment space, you can attend any school you want. This means students are not confined to a single institution, even if they live in an impoverished area.

Low-income families have capitalized on this opportunity. Approximately 60% of charter school students have family earnings that qualify them for reduced price or free lunches. Charter schools break up wealth segregation and allow social mobility for disadvantaged pupils.

This is especially valuable because of the quality of a charter school education. A study conducted by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that charter school students learned an equivalent of 40 more days of reading and 28 more days of math than public schoolers. When charter schools make up more than 10% of student enrollment in a district, there is a 2.8% increase in high school graduation rate.

These benefits have especially benefited minority students. A quarter of charter school students are Black, and more than a third are Hispanic, both higher proportions than public schools.  Black students had the equivalent of 40 more days of reading and Hispanic students had the equivalent of 48 more days of math within charter institutions. Charter schools lead to the educational improvement of all, regardless of race, wealth, or status.

The gap between public and charter schools can be traced back to simple government inefficiencies. While charter schools aren’t entirely free from intervention, they are a step in the right direction toward a free market solution to education, and consequently a better academic experience. Since charter schools are independently run, and have to compete with other charter schools for their pupils, they have a positive incentive structure towards educational improvement. On the other hand, when the government imposes its will upon children’s learning, it leads to inefficient outcomes and unfortunate consequences. If attempts to bail out public schools continue, government officials will be shortchanging students of the freedom of education, which is crucial for any society to thrive.

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