Charter School Parents: Happy or Unhappy?

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Politicians and policy experts have argued for two decades about the merits of charter schools, with many studies showing the alternative public schools perform as well as or better than traditional tax-funded schools. But what do parents think?

Two large-scale surveys recently provided a closer look. Charter-school parents are, on the whole, much more likely to be satisfied with key aspects of their school’s teaching, academic expectations, and safety.

The 2016 Education Next survey collected data from a random sample of 1,571 respondents who had school-age children living in their household and separated them into categories of charter-school parents, private-school parents, and district-school parents. According to the authors, this is the first nationally representative survey to report satisfaction scores from parents in these three categories.

Parents responded on a five-point scale from “very dissatisfied” to “very satisfied”; and the results were astonishing. “Among five key characteristics — teacher quality, discipline, expectations for achievement, safety, and instruction in character and values — charter-school parents are, on average, 13 percentage points more satisfied with their schools than are parents of children in district schools,” concluded Harvard professors Paul E. Peterson and Martin West and Harvard postdoctoral fellow Samuel Barrows.

The only category that had a higher percentage of district-school parents reporting “very satisfied” was “school location,” which is unsurprising considering that families often must travel longer distances to find a charter school with available openings.

In addition, for many categories of behavioral problems, district-school parents were more likely to report serious problems of students missing class, destroying property, fighting, or using drugs than charter-school parents.

School communication for charter schools also tended to be better. “As compared to parents of children in district schools, charter parents are 15 percentage points more likely to say they have communicated with the school about volunteering, and 7 percentage points more likely to report having spoken to school officials about their child’s accomplishments,” the EdNext study found.

It’s important to note that these studies only measure parents’ perceptions and did not measure the actual teacher quality or behavioral issues at these schools. However, the authors note that parents’ opinions of their schools are a crucial variable in the debate over the effectiveness of charter schools.

If parents in cities around the country are consistently choosing charter schools and are more satisfied with their performance, the charters must be doing something right.

Peterson, along with Harvard post-doctoral fellow Albert Cheng, also analyzed a 2012 U.S. Department of Education survey of more than 17,000 families and confirmed similar findings as the EdNext survey. Though the Department of Education survey did not explicitly create a category for charter-school parents in the final report, Peterson and Cheng were able to use the original dataset to identify which parents had children in charter schools.

“Compared to parents at assigned-district schools, charter-school parents are 6 percentage points more likely to say they are ‘very satisfied’ with teachers at the school, 13 percentage points more likely to be ‘very satisfied’ with academic standards, and 10 percentage points more likely to be ‘very satisfied’ with both school discipline and communication with families,” Peterson and Cheng found.

The Department of Education survey also allowed the authors to break down survey respondents into specific demographic categories. They found that charter-school parents, on average, reported lower family incomes and were less likely to have earned a college degree. The percentage of minorities was also higher in charter schools than in assigned-district schools.

Even looking at these specific demographic indicators, the charter-school satisfaction scores still hold. “Averaging across all five assessment indicators, the percentage of low-income parents saying they are ‘very satisfied’ is 9 percentage points higher at charters than at assigned-district schools,” the authors concluded.

Charter schools are playing an important role in improving educational outcomes — especially for low-income, minority students in urban areas — and parents are noticing. We should, too.

Daniel Huizinga is a columnist for Opportunity Lives covering business and politics. Follow him on Twitter @HuizingaDaniel.