Florida Charter Schools: Show me the money!

(Guest Post by Collin Hitt)

There’s mounting evidence that charter schools decrease dropout rates, increase college attendance rates and improve the quality of colleges that college-bound students attend. But so what if these kids go to college? Do they actually graduate? And if charter schools really have lasting impacts, shouldn’t charter schools actually have an impact on how much money students earn? A new working paper examines these questions and the answer, in a word, is yes.

Kevin Booker, Tim Sass, Brian Gill  and Ron Zimmer have now extended their previous research on charter high schools. (Jay wrote about their research and their clever research design a few years back.) They look at students in Chicago and Florida who attend charter schools in eighth grade, some of whom go on to attend charter high schools and some whom go on to attend district-run high schools.

They find that students who attend charter high schools are more likely to graduate high school, attend college and persist in college. Such findings are extremely important. But the paper is truly novel in that it also examines the labor market outcomes for students. From the study:

In Florida, we also examine data on the subsequent earnings of students in our analytic sample, at a point after they could have earned college degrees. Charter high school attendance is associated with an increase in maximum annual earnings for students between ages 23 and 25 of $2,347—or about 12.7 percent higher earnings than for comparable students who attended a charter middle school but matriculated to a traditional high school.

Two years ago, the front page of the New York Times carried a headline that teachers can have lasting impacts on student’s earnings in adulthood, citing groundbreaking work by Jonah Rockoff, Raj Chetty and John Friedman. For a single school year, a one standard deviation increase in teacher quality – as measured by a teacher’s valued-added impact on test scores – increased a student’s annual earnings at age 28 by $182. Compare that to the impact of attending a charter high school in Florida: a $2,347 increase in annual earnings by age 25. Using Rockoff, Chetty and Friedman’s estimate, that’s equivalent to a student experiencing a one standard deviation in teacher quality every year from kindergarten through the twelfth grade.

So these findings stand out. Moreover, Booker and colleagues close the paper with a key observation. In Florida, as in other school choice research, a paradox became apparent. The improvements in long-term outcomes were in no way predicted by earlier research on test score impacts.

The substantial positive impacts of charter high schools on attainment and earnings are especially striking, given that charter schools in the same jurisdictions have not been shown to have large positive impacts on students’ test scores (Sass, 2006; Zimmer et al., 2012)…

 Positive impacts on long-term attainment outcomes and earnings are, of course, more consequential than outcomes on test scores in school. It is possible that charter schools’ full long-term impacts on their students have been underestimated by studies that examine only test scores. More broadly, the findings suggest that the research examining the efficacy of educational programs should examine a broader array of outcomes than just student achievement.

This, I can promise, will be a recurrent theme in school choice research in the coming years. Recall this passage from Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer’s research of the Harlem Promise Academy, where they found large gains in college attendance:

 “…the cross-sectional correlation between test scores and adult outcomes may understate the true impact of a high quality school, suggesting that high quality schools change more than cognitive ability. Importantly, the return on investment for high-performing charter schools could be much larger than that implied by the short-run test score increases.”

Test scores are supposed to be an indicator of how kids will fare later in life. Now we have another piece of school choice research finding that test scores missed the true positive impact that schools (and choice) had on kids. Something to think about if you’re going to argue that schools of choice should be held more accountable to state tests.

14 Responses to Florida Charter Schools: Show me the money!

  1. Matthew Ladner says:


  2. Ann in L.A. says:

    I’d look to certain character issues as the driver of these results, such as: Understanding that working hard actually gets you somewhere, and the need for perseverance in the face of setbacks.

    • You’re absolutely right, Ann. This is interesting data, but the easy interpretation — charters are better — is invalid, since two separate and unequal groups are being compared here: those who had the persistence to persevere through possibly rigid discipline and academic challenges vs. those who may have opted for an easier way out (especially since the latter likely had lower GPAs in middle school than those who continued with charters).

      • Collin Hitt says:

        Bruce: Read Appendix A.

      • brucewilliamsmith says:

        Colin, there’s no evidence of any kind in Appendix A about why individual students and their families choose to attend a chartered as opposed to a state or private high school. A few guesses are taken with regard to the proximity of different types of schools, but nothing of statistical significance is determined, and there is no evidence that the authors made any effort to determine how happy or successful the students in the two groups were in their chartered middle schools.

  3. jean sanders says:

    Is this just worded poorly or are you making a new claim?
    quote: “There’s mounting evidence that charter schools decrease dropout rates, increase college attendance rates and improve the quality of colleges that college-bound students attend. But so what if these kids go to college?”
    How on earth can you claim charter schools improve quality of colleges… did you mean to say that students who attend a charter school and graduate are able to pick from a different “select” list of colleges? as selected by U.S. News and World Report as being
    among the “quality A-list”? At any rate go back and have someone edit the first sentence. I can’t believe you are training researchers… By the way would you please report what amount of funding you receive from the Walton Foundation? that would explain your ideology. I’m sorry you have compromised your scholarship this way.

    • Matthew Ladner says:

      When does the night shift arrive? I’m concerned that you may be violating lurker work rules.

      • jean sanders says:

        Matthew: I’m not sure if I qualify as your lurker but would love to hear the description. It just seems to me that editorial standards have been demeaned (probably the fault of those really really bad schools and their horrid teachers).

  4. How do the 250 that have closed in Florida over the years, 25 in 2013 alone fit into the assertions above. Oh and don’t forget the 17 in Columbus Ohio in one year too.

  5. jean sanders says:

    you neglect to mention social capital; the best thing about my college was the friends I met there; when you go to a private or a non-charter school you make friends…. in many cases those friends help you get the jobs; so perhaps it was being in a “gated community” that screens out others???? there are too many complex factors to keep drawing the same old conclusions you seem to push (voucher only)

  6. jean sanders says:

    Cami Anderson in Newark uses your “studies” to justify her policy of school closings (and we all know what is going on in NJ). Michelle Rhee uses your “results” to justify her own agenda. Republican governors rushed embrace the paper you cite to justify their harsh policies. Even the authors cautioned against drawing unwarranted conclusions based on this paper – See more at: http://jerseyjazzman.blogspot.com/2013/06/jonah-rockoff-testifies-at-njboe-part-ii.html#sthash.WyKUY3sl.dpuf

  7. […] surprised that redefinED‘s Ron Matus bit on a charter school miracle piece in Jay P. Geene’s Blog and missed something critical to the veracity of the conclusion. But the new addition of the job […]

    • matthewladner says:

      So if Scathing had continued reading the study for another two pages he would have learned that the authors controlled for the factors in his quote, which makes his use of this quote misleading.

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