Study finds Florida charter school benefits are more than test scores


Florida’s charter schools might not raise students’ reading and math scores a whole lot, on average, but attending one may increase a student’s chances of reaching college, or earning more money later in life, newly published research suggests.

We first highlighted the working paper more than two years ago. An updated version appeared Monday in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

The researchers (Tim Sass of Georgia State University, Kevin Booker and Brian Gill of Mathematica Policy Research, and Ron Zimmer of Vanderbilt University) looked at students who attended Florida charter schools in eighth grade between the 1998-99 and 2001-02 school years. They compared those who went on to attend charter high schools with those who enrolled in traditional high schools.

They found the charter high school students were about 9 percent more likely to enroll in college, and had an earnings advantage of nearly $2,300 by their mid-20s.

“The positive relationships between charter high school attendance and long-term outcomes are striking, given that charter school students in the same jurisdiction have not been shown to have large positive impacts on students’ test scores,” they write.

The authors caution “unobservable” differences between charter and non-charter students could affect the results, and that Florida’s charter school landscape has changed a lot in the 14 years since the students in the study finished middle school. But they probed their results using a variety of statistical techniques, and concluded they appear “robust.”

Jay Greene, who chairs the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, writes on his blog that the results raise questions about regulatory approaches that reward or punish charter schools based on test scores alone.

So, building our entire education reform strategy around the idea that short-term changes in test scores correspond with long-term changes in life outcomes is inconsistent with a growing body of evidence.  Choice reforms in particular have demonstrated that long term gains in educational attainment (and now earnings) can be produced without seeing short term gains in test scores (and vice versa). Trying to pick the winners among schools of choice based on test scores could lead to horribly wrong policy decisions.  Parents appear to know more than portfolio managers, choice regulators, and other central planners.

Florida tries to strike a balance on test-based accountability. Charters are automatically shut down if they earn two consecutive F’s in the state accountability system, but otherwise, they generally aren’t subject to heavy-handed central planning based solely on test scores.

The charter school landscape in the Sunshine State also diverges a bit from the images that dominate the national debate. Its more than 650 charters include those run by large management companies, charters designed to attract suburbanites, some strong schools in rural communities, a handful of municipal charter systems, some credit-recovery outfits and a wide range of mom-and-pops with a wide range of academic results. “No-excuses” schools run by national non-profit charter management organizations like KIPP — which tend to be more effective at raising test scoresare the exception, not the norm.

Avatar photo

BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)