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Charter High Schools’ Effects on Long-Term Attainment and Earnings

The American charter school sector has attracted considerable research interest as it has expanded and matured in the last decades. In general, this research indicates mixed effects. Urban charter schools, employing the No Excuse paradigm – characterised by high behavioural expectations, strict discipline, and longer school days or years – appear to have positive effects on test scores, but other charter schools often have no or even negative effects.

Yet the evidence base on longer-term outcomes is still scarce. As discussed in last month’s digest, charter schools in Texas appear to have no positive effects in this respect. While No Excuse paradigm schools positively affect test scores and university enrolment, they have no statistically significant impact on labour-market outcomes when students are 24-26 years old. And regular charter schools were in fact found to have had a negative impact on all three types of outcomes.

In a new paper, 'Charter High Schools’ Effects on Long-Term Attainment and Earnings', Tim R. Sass, Ron W. Zimmer, Brian P. Gill, and T. Kevin Booker provide new evidence on the longer-term educational and labour-market effects of charter school attendance, this time among upper-secondary schools in Florida. Similar to the paper discussed in last month’s digest, the authors are not able to exploit experimental variation in charter school attendance to ensure that they compare ‘like for like’. However, they use various other techniques to tease out the causal impact of charter school attendance. The principal strategy involves comparing only pupils who attend lower-secondary charter schools, some of whom switch to state upper-secondary schools while others remain in charter upper-secondary schools. In combination with matching pupils on predetermined variables, the hope is that any unobservable characteristics affecting both charter school attendance and outcomes can be captured.

The results display that upper-secondary charter school attendance in Florida has positive effects on the likelihood of obtaining an upper-secondary school diploma, college/university enrolment as well as persistence at college/university for at least two years. Furthermore, the authors find that charter school attendance also raises earnings by 12 per cent when students are between 23 and 25 years old. In other words, in Florida, the effects of charter school attendance on longer-term educational outcomes also appear to spill over in the labour market.

Interestingly, the same authors find that charter schools do not impact test scores. This is in sharp contrast compared with the results from the paper discussed in last month’s digest, which found negative effects of regular charter schools in Texas on test scores, longer-term educational outcomes as well as earnings, while finding positive effects of No Excuse paradigm charter schools on test scores and longer term-educational outcomes – but no effects on earnings.

There are various potential reasons for these findings. Florida charter schools may simply be more effective in promoting non-cognitive outcomes – such as grit, persistence, self-control, and conscientiousness – that could matter more for promoting success in the labour market for young adults than test scores. However, the authors have no data to evaluate this hypothesis rigorously.

In any case, it is important to note that the effects on labour-market outcomes are evaluated when students are in their mid-20s. If charter schools in Florida are less likely to push students to pursue further studies – in, for example, law and medicine – compared with the No Excuse paradigm charter schools in Texas, positive effects on the labour market may show up earlier among students attending the former. Indeed, the fact that the former do not raise test scores, while the latter do, may indicate different academic focuses that spill over in the labour market at different times. Of course, it is also possible that the results merely capture different types of charter school quality in the two states – or methodological differences between the two studies.

Overall, therefore, using data from Florida, the study provides the first ever evidence of positive effects of charter schools on earnings when students are in their mid-20s. These charter schools, however, do not have a positive impact on test scores, indicating that they promote non-cognitive skills that are rewarded in the labour market among young adults. But we need more research to determine what explains these findings and the quite stark differences between the labour-market effects of these charter schools compared with those in Texas.

Gabriel Heller Sahlgren

This comment piece is also the Editor's Pick in the CMRE Monthly Research Digest_07_16. The piece reviews a paper by Tim R. Sass, Ron W. Zimmer, Brian P. Gill, and T. Kevin Booker'Charter High Schools’ Effects on Long-Term Attainment and Earnings', for the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (Summer 2016), a free copy of which may be downloaded here.

You can download free copies of back issues of the CMRE Monthly Research Digest here.

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