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Can Research And Dialogue Improve The Debate Over Charter Schools?

May 5, 2015

Public Agenda and the Spencer Foundation announce new online resources to improve dialogue on controversial education issues


New York — As the nation recognizes National Charter Schools Week May 3-9, Public Agenda and the Spencer Foundation today launched Charter Schools In Perspective, a set of resources designed to get beyond the polarization this issue can create in districts and states.

This polarization can cause confusion rather than clarity and make it difficult for policymakers, educators and community members to find practical solutions to improve schools for all children.

Charter Schools In Perspective consists of nonpartisan resources designed to support a more informed and civil dialogue about charter schools among policymakers, journalists and community members. These resources include:

Charter Schools In Perspective: A Guide to Research: This thorough and accessibly-written analysis brings together and synthesizes current research on charter schools. Topics include student achievement, finance, governance, innovation and public opinion.

Ten Questions for Policymakers: This set of questions helps local officials think through decisions about charter schools in their jurisdictions.

Ten Questions for Journalists: This set of questions provides local and national journalists with questions and ideas for stories about charter schools in their regions and nationwide.

Are Charter Schools a Good Way to Improve Education in Our Community? This discussion guide is designed to help community members grapple with the trade-offs and benefits of introducing, expanding, limiting or closing charter schools. By presenting different perspectives on charter schools, it helps communities hold civil, productive dialogue on how to improve their schools.

All materials are available online at

“Neither the Spencer Foundation nor Public Agenda takes positions on contemporary controversies about education. As a research organization, the Spencer Foundation is primarily interested in how high quality research and scholarship can be used to improve education policy and practice,” said Dr. Diana Hess, Senior Vice President of the Spencer Foundation. “Both organizations recognize that charter schools have become deeply polarizing, with some advocates both for and against the schools entrenched in their positions and often dominating headlines. We believe that more informed, thoughtful deliberation about issues related to what kinds of schools the public should create is in the best interest of communities, parents and children.”

Charter schools make up 7 percent of all U.S. public schools yet are quickly growing. Between 2007-08 and 2012-13, the number of charter schools increased by nearly 40 percent and the schools are permitted in 43 states. Meanwhile, public opinion research indicates that most people lack even basic knowledge about charter schools. “Communities deserve better conditions to help them determine the best way to improve their local schools.” said Will Friedman, president of Public Agenda. “We believe that Charter Schools In Perspective can help change the conversation so that we can focus on how the public K-12 education system as a whole can work better for students.”

Charter Schools In Perspective grew out of the Spencer Foundation’s Disciplined Dialogues Project, which seeks to bring an innovative, rigorous and disciplined process of deliberation and communication to key education issues where controversy and politicization exist and where policy is being created quickly. The Spencer Foundation will hold a second Disciplined Dialogues convening in June 2015 to explore issues related to teachers’ working conditions, teacher quality and student learning in elementary and secondary schools.

What People Are Saying About Charter Schools In Perspective:

“If you want a neutral, well-informed guide through the ideologically-charged battlefield of charter schools, this is the place to go. This clearly laid-out summary of all things that ought to be known about charter schools is without peer in the country.”

– Jack Jennings, Founder and former President/CEO, Center on Education Policy

“This extensive and accessible overview of charter school research is a terrific resource for the public and policymakers. Of course, research itself won’t resolve the many cultural and political debates around the role of charters in an increasingly diverse democratic society (particularly, given the lack of definitive, empirical evidence that charters improve student outcomes). Fortunately, the tools included here–particularly the discussion starter–support thoughtful and transparent deliberation about “what we know.” This is much needed as decision makers and communities confront thorny values questions about choice, competition, and privatization as means for ensuring all the right to high-quality education and tackle equally tough normative and political challenges of making that right real in traditional public schools.”

– Jeannie Oakes, Presidential Professor in Education Equity, Emeritus, UCLA; President, American Education Research Association

“Our education debates are rife with impassioned declarations and sweeping claims. That can make it hard to find agreement on where things stand, how we can do better, and what solutions are worth trying. The Spencer Foundation and Public Agenda have provided a signal service in promoting civil discussion, clarifying what we do and don’t know, and respectfully acknowledging differing views. This is a resource that parents, educators, community leaders, and public officials will find valuable.”

– Frederick M. Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute

Charter Schools in Perspective is a refreshing and much-needed contribution to a more informed and civil dialogue, which is based on a growing body of research. Parents, educators, communities, lawmakers, researchers, and journalists will all benefit from the wealth of information and data contained within its pages.”

– Greg Richmond, President & CEO, National Association of Charter School Authorizers

“‘Charter Schools In Perspective: 10 Questions for Journalists’ is an excellent primer. Even for education reporters who may not know much about charters, the resource triggers several story ideas and questions to ask.”

– Paul Fain, Senior Reporter, Inside Higher Ed


About Public Agenda

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on K-12 and higher education reform, health care, federal and local budgets, energy and immigration. Find Public Agenda online at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at @PublicAgenda.

About the Spencer Foundation

The Spencer Foundation was established in 1962 by Lyle M. Spencer. The Foundation received its major endowment upon Spencer’s death in 1968 and began formal grant making in 1971. Since that time, the Foundation has made grants totaling approximately $500 million. The Foundation is intended, by Spencer’s direction, to investigate ways in which education, broadly conceived, can be improved around the world. From the first, the Foundation has been dedicated to the belief that research is necessary to the improvement in education. The Foundation is thus committed to supporting high-quality investigation of education through its research programs and to strengthening and renewing the educational research community through its fellowship and training programs and related activities. Find the Spencer Foundation online at