The Effect of Charter Schooling on Student Mobility and Classification Status

Authors: Allison Gilmour, Colin Shanks, & Marcus A. Winters

Project Summary
The characteristics of students enrolled in charter schools often differ from those of surrounding traditional public schools. Anecdotes of charter schools inappropriately discouraging unwanted students from applying (“cream skimming”) or encouraging struggling students to leave for a different school (“pushing out”) have led to the concern that such “enrollment gaps” are caused by charter schools systematically failing to meet their legal and moral obligation to educate all students.

Gilmour, Shanks and Winters study student school preference, mobility, and classification changes in charter and traditional public schools within Newark, New Jersey. They focus on the enrollment and classification patterns for three subgroups who are underrepresented in Newark charter schools: Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and English language learners. Following descriptive analyses to document entry, exit and classification patterns, the authors make use of a randomized component of school assignments to measure the causal effect of enrolling in a participating charter school on a student’s subsequent mobility and receipt of special education services.

Key Findings
The authors show that each aspect of the enrollment and classification process – entry, exit, declassification, and receiving a new classification – contributes to lower enrollments of Hispanic students, students with disabilities, and English language learners. However, several of the results also challenge some common beliefs about the nature of charter school enrollments, including that:

  • Enrolling in a participating charter school reduces the likelihood that a student leaves their school within the next 2 years overall, as well as for students with disabilities and English language learners.
  • The decrease in mobility caused by enrolling in a participating charter school is largely, but not entirely, driven by the fact that these students are often attending a school that they ranked highly during the school assignment process
  • Enrolling in a participating charter school increases the likelihood that a student with a disability is later declassified out of special education.

Implications and Recommendations
The results provide new insights into the factors that drive demographic differences between charter and traditional public schools. In particular, the finding that enrolling in a participating charter school reduces the likelihood that students subsequently exit their school represents the most direct evidence to date contrasting the claim that charter schools systematically push out students. Further, the finding that enrolling in a highly preferred school explains a considerable portion of the difference in the probability that students leave charters schools suggests something relevant for policies governing student and family choice. Finally, the authors recommend additional study to better understand the increased probability of declassification for students with disabilities enrolled in charter schools as varying explanations call for very different policy implications.