The positive impact of a charter school network on registration and voting



As the latest Brown Center report on American education helpfully reminds us, the original goal of public education was to prepare students for citizenship. Horace Mann and other early proponents of universal public education saw it as essential to the functioning of a democracy. And the system of “common schools” they set up was based on the assumption that effective citizenship education would arise from schools being bodies of government, under the control of democratically elected officials. The structure of the American public education system, in short, was designed to promote the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary for effective citizenship.

Charter schools, which only emerged in the last quarter of a century, deviate from the common school model: they are funded by the state, open to the public, free and regulated by the State, but managed by the private sector. (It is no coincidence that a large network of charter schools is called Uncommon schools.) The private operation of charter schools means that some commentators deeply suspicious. Some even refuse to call them public schools.

Concerns about the private operation of charter schools are partly motivated by the belief that former advocates of common schools were correct in believing that the public operation of schools is necessary to serve public purposes. This hypothesis deserves empirical attention: the evidence as to whether charter schools prepare students for effective citizenship can inform the debate about their “advertising”.

Such empirical examination is particularly timely in an increasingly polarized and resentful political environment. The skills and attitudes necessary to engage in constructive democratic discourse appear to be scarce. Plus, the stakes are arguably higher today, as government plays a much larger role in the lives of most Americans than it did two centuries ago. Citizenship education is perhaps more important than it ever was.

We recently completed a to study which provides the first rigorous evidence on the impacts of charter schools on civic readiness, as indicated by eventual registration and voting once students reach adulthood. Preparation for democracy is a New York-based charter school network that serves a low-income minority population with a mission “To educate responsible university citizens to succeed in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship.” While Democracy Prep is certainly not typical of charter schools across the country, it represents a test case of how charter schools can promote civic readiness when they make it an explicit goal.

Since the founding of the first Democracy Preparation School, many of its classes have had more applicants than places available. Like many charter schools, it admits students by lot. The admission lottery creates a randomized experiment – the gold standard of research designs – in which a comparison of the results of lottery winners and losers provides a clear indication of the school’s impact on those results. In other studies, admission lotteries were used to measure the impact of charter schools on test results, graduation and university enrollment, and non-academic results.

We’ve collected Democracy Prep admission lottery data dating back a decade. As of November 2016, many of the students who had applied for Democracy Prep’s middle and high school classes in the early cohorts were of age to register and vote. We compared Democracy Prep’s admission lottery data to public registration and voting data (compiled nationally by Catalist from public databases maintained by each state).

We engaged in a three-step analytical process to assess the impact of enrolling in Democracy Prep on the likelihood that a student would end up registering and voting. First, we measured the impact of offer admission to Democracy Prep as determined by the lottery. But not all lottery winners ultimately signed up for Democracy Prep, and some lottery losers were later admitted off the waiting list. The second stage of the analysis therefore consisted of a standard adjustment of the impact of the offer of admission to take into account the differences between the offers of admission and the actual number of students. In the third step, we used a Bayesian statistical approach that incorporates information from the larger research literature on the effect of education on registration and voting, in order to reduce the likelihood of being induced into error by random outliers in the data. The Bayesian approach not only provides a better indication of the true impact, but also produces a measure of the likelihood that the true impact will be positive.

In the first step, we found that lottery winners experienced positive impacts of around 6 percentage points on the likelihood of them registering and the likelihood of voting. The impact on voting is statistically significant in conventional terms, but the impact on registration is not quite statistically significant. Given that only about half of lottery winners signed up for Democracy Prep and about a quarter of lottery losers signed up, the second step of the analysis suggests that the impact of registration must be much. more important (again, statistically significant for voting but not for registration). But the second stage impacts are measured imprecisely, indicating that the actual impacts could be anywhere within a wide range.

Democracy Prep increases voter registration rates for its students by approximately 16 percentage points and increases voting rates for its students by approximately 12 percentage points.

In the third step of the analysis, the Bayesian method accounts for the imprecision of the second step. Implicitly, Bayesian analysis recognizes that the true impact is more likely to be at the lower end of the range of possible impacts than at the higher end. Despite this, with Bayesian analysis, we find significant impacts on registration and voting: Democracy Prep increases voter registration rates of its students by about 16 percentage points and increases the voting rates of its students. students of around 12 percentage points. And we are convinced that the impact of Democracy Prep is real: there is a 98% probability that signing up to Democracy Prep will have a positive impact on signing up, and the same likelihood that Democracy Prep will have a positive impact on the vote.

At national scale, only half of citizens aged 18 to 21 are registered to vote, and only two in five actually voted in 2016. In this context, any intervention that increases registration by 16 percentage points and the vote by 12 points percentage deserves attention. While we cannot conclude that charter schools in general produce such effects, Democracy Prep provides evidence that “uncommon” charter schools are able to effectively prepare students for citizenship.

More generally, these results suggest reasons for optimism about the ability of any school – public, charter or private – to promote civic participation, should it choose to make it a central objective. If Democracy Prep’s impacts could be replicated nationwide, more than 2.5 million 18-21 year olds would be added to the voters lists. In an age of weak civic knowledge and civic discourse characterized by resentment and abuse rather than respect and reason, a return to the original goals of public education might be just what the country needs.



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