Busting the myth that charters and private schools are better than traditional public schools


by David Safier

The conservative "education reform" movement has two central Foundation Myths. The first is that our traditional public schools are awful. The second is that charters and private schools are better. Putting them together, conservatives conclude we need to get our children out of the "failing government schools" and into "successful charters and private schools." It's an elegant argument, but it's wrong on both counts. In the first episode of the new cable TV show, "Education: the Rest of the Story," I debunk the myth that today's public schools are failing. In the latest episode, I take apart the myth that charter and private schools do a better job than traditional public schools.

In the video, I bring together a number of studies comparing the three types of schools. The overwhelming conclusion is, it's basically a wash. You get statistically significant variations between student achievement in the three types of schools but no consistent trend. Now traditional public school students fare a bit better, now charter school students, now private school students. If "government schools" with their entrenched bureaucracies and teachers' unions were the problem, charters and private schools should shine by comparison. But they don't. No one in the public or private sector has managed to create a way of teaching our children that is consistently superior to other methods and is reproduceable in other schools.

You can watch the 10 minute video below the fold, but first, here's a list of the studies I cite.

  • 2004: Bush's Department of Ed compared charters to traditional public schools. ""Charter schools in all five case study states were less likely than traditional public schools to meet performance standards even after controlling for several school characteristics."
  • 2006: Bush's Department of Ed compared private schools to traditional public schools. Public schools were higher in 4th grade math, and private schools were higher in 8th grade reading. Other scores were similar.
  • 2009: CREDO study of charter schools in 16 states. Charters scored better than traditional public schools in 5 states and scored worse in 6 states (including Arizona). The other states were a wash.
  • 2009: Study of Washington, DC, voucher program. A few subgroups of students in the voucher program performed better than those in traditional public schools, though the study expressed concern some of those could be false results.
  • 2010: University of Arkansas study of the Milwaukee voucher program. Milwaukee has had vouchers for 20 years. "The University of Arkansas study, which tracks about 2,700 comparable students over time, has shown no statistically significant difference between the test scores of voucher students and Milwaukee Public Schools students."
  • 2013: Study of Louisiana vouchers at the end of the program's first year. "LEAP scores [the Lousiana standardized test] for third- through eighth-graders show only 40 percent of voucher students scored at or above grade level this past spring. The state average for all students was 69 percent."

You can watch the video below the fold.


"Education: The Rest of the Story" is produced by Carolyn Brown through Access Tucson Community Media. It can be seen on Thursdays at 4:30pm on Cox Channel 20 or Comcast Channel 74.


  1. Your comment doesn’t make any sense. Reformers have been pushing charters now for years and their record is dismal. In most cases they perform no better nor worse than public schools. Competition was supposed to end the “achievement gap,” but all it has done is suck money from public schools, which do educate 90% or more of America’s children. Want to help low income children? Help their parents get decent jobs with a living wage.
    To your last point, the worst teachers are way better than you think they are and there aren’t as many bad teachers as the reformers would have you believe.

  2. This is all true but irrelevant. The truth is that about 25 percent of teachers, 25 percent some districts and 25 percent of charters outperform other districts by huge amounts psychometrically. Yet, they are not allowed to grow, they are not allowed to acquire their underperforming competitors. The huge loser in all this – students from low income neighborhoods. The underlying value of the system is that the worse teacher in the worst school in the worst district is entitled to a full classroom.