ITP | The Distribution of Charter School Effects on College Enrollment and Degree Attainment

October 22, 2021, Noon-1:30 pm Central Time

259 Educational Sciences

Jake Wertz, ITP Fellow


Are charter schools more effective at getting their graduates to and through college than traditional public schools? Prior research identifies substantial positive causal effects in a small number of charter schools, but has not considered the distribution of school effects across charter and other public schools.

Using data on the population of Wisconsin public school students and multilevel models that control for demographic, compositional, and geographic predictors of postsecondary outcomes, I analyze the distribution of estimated school effects in the charter system relative to the distribution of effects in the traditional public school system. I find that, while some charter schools are very highly effective, the median charter school is equivalent to just the 18th percentile traditional public school in effectiveness at promoting college matriculation. Measures of Associate’s and Bachelor’s degree attainment among college matriculants show that the median charter school performs comparably to the 36th-40th percentile traditional public school, and there are no charter schools among the very most effective (top 3%) high schools in the state at ensuring that their graduates who go to college eventually complete a degree. Results align with previous findings of substantial positive effects on college enrollment in certain charter schools, while highlighting the importance of examining the full distribution of charter schools when evaluating theories, laws, and policies that promote expansion of the charter school sector.