Are charter schools (taxpayer funded but privately operated) better at educating kids than traditional public schools? It’s a vexing question. Some charter school chains, such as Success Academy in New York City, boast impressively high test scores. But it’s unclear if high-achieving children from devoted families would have done just as well in their neighborhood schools. The research shows mixed results.

Five years ago, one group of researchers found that charter school students across Chicago and the whole state of Florida scored slightly worse on math tests than their public high school counterparts. Their reading scores were about the same.

But last week, the same group of researchers produced a follow-up study on the Florida students, published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, and it showed something startling: the charter students might not have produced higher test scores when they were in school, but years later, when they were in their mid-twenties, the charter school students earned more money, and were more likely to have attended at least two years of college (although still only half of them did so).

“This is the first study on any scale that has been able to look at college persistence and earnings,” said Brian Gill, a senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, a private research firm based in Princeton, N.J., who was a co-author on both studies. “Ultimately, these are more important outcomes than test scores.”

Gill and his colleagues at Georgia State, Vanderbilt and Mathematica found that the young adults who had attended a charter high school made $2,300 more a year, on average, between the ages of 23 and 25, than their counterparts at traditional high schools did. And the charter school students were 11 percentage points more likely to have attended at least two years of college. That’s a substantial difference when looking at four years of students across 44 charter high schools operating in Florida between 1998 and 2005. College graduation figures weren’t available, and for many of these students — attending college part time while working — it’s still too early to judge.

Charter school critics often point out that charter schools may be creaming the best students from the traditional schools, ones with fewer disabilities, social and emotional needs and disciplinary issues. So the sanguine results could just be because “better” students attended the charter schools in the first place.

The researchers attempted to overcome this problem by matching similar students, on paper, in the different schools and comparing how the paired students did.  Students were matched by gender, race, income, disciplinary incidents and their eighth-grade test scores. Special education students and English language learners were matched to each other. They even went one step further: all the students in their study had attended a charter school in eighth grade. So, even the non-charter comparison students had come from families who were motivated enough and invested enough in their children’s education to have applied to and chosen a charter school earlier in their lives. The only difference was that one student had attended a charter high school and the other hadn’t.

Then, because the state of Florida has linked its unemployment insurance data, which includes earnings, to its college and K-12 student data, the researchers were able to see how the students fared after high school graduation.

One study certainly isn’t conclusive evidence that charter schools are producing adults with better lives. More studies in other cities and states need to be done to validate these results. Even this study isn’t proof that Florida charter schools have figured out how to educate disadvantaged youth. Their students may be doing better than traditional public school students, but they’re still dropping out of college at alarmingly high rates, and earning low wages.  Only 52 percent of the charter school students had attended at least two years of college, compared with 41 percent of their non-charter counterparts. And their annual wages were still a very low $22,348.

Gill suspects that small size may be a factor in charter schools’ favor. He pointed to a growing body of research showing that small high schools, charter or not, are producing lasting benefits that aren’t captured by test scores. For example, a study of New York City’s experiment to break up large high public schools into small ones found that the students were enrolling and staying in college longer.  A study of a federally-funded voucher program in Washington D.C. found that students graduated from small private high schools in larger numbers. And a study of a privately-financed voucher program in New York City found that black students, especially, enrolled in college in higher numbers when they attended a small, private high school. It echoes earlier literature on Catholic high schools, where there’s evidence that the schools produced more high school graduates and more college-goers, rather than higher test scores.

“In pretty much all these cases, we’re talking about small schools,” Gill said. “It’s possible that this kind of environment is one where the adults in the school know the kids better, and they’re reinforcing the importance of college attendance, and making sure kids are filling out college applications and financial aid forms.”

Still, what’s causing kids to stay in college and later earn more money is a mystery. The authors wonder if these charter schools are doing more than providing better college counseling, and might be “particularly good at promoting skills such as grit, persistence, self-control, and conscientiousness.”

But there’s no data to prove that.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Jill Barshay is the founding editor and writer of Education By The Numbers, The Hechinger Report's blog about education data.