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Study: On average, charter schools do no better than public schools

But the study also found more nuanced evidence that the most effective charter schools are those serving lower-income students, especially in urban areas.

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Bill Gates shakes hands with Nelson Smith, President and CEO of National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, at National Charter Schools Conference in Chicago Tuesday, the same day that a government study found that charter schools do no better than public schools in student outcomes.

Kiichiro Sato/AP

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More evidence is in that charter schools – at least on average – do no better than regular public schools.

Middle-school students who were selected by lottery to attend charter schools performed no better than their peers who lost out in the lottery and attended nearby public schools, according to a study funded by the federal government and released Tuesday.

This is the first large-scale randomized study to be conducted across multiple states, and it lends some fuel to those who say there is little evidence to back the drive for more charters.

But the study also found more nuanced evidence that the charters that work best are those serving lower-income students, especially in urban areas.

“When you take a look at our findings and then look back at previous studies, they start to follow a pattern,” says Philip Gleason, the study’s director and a senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, which produced the study. “Studies that have focused on the largest set of schools find either no or negative effects, but schools in larger urban areas, serving the most disadvantaged students, do have an effect.”

Charters have been a hot topic lately, with a big push from the Obama administration for states to expand the number of charter schools and to replicate those that seem to have the most effect. Charters are publicly funded but largely autonomous, and they are frequently criticized by teachers unions, in particular, since they are not bound by union agreements.

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