I may nitpick over some of the details of SB 63, like Sections 21 and 22, which do away with tenure and collective bargaining for charter school teachers (knocking away South Dakota teachers' last shreds of legal leverage). I may note with tentative approval the Department of Education's willingness to take the lead by initiating a pilot charter school for American Indian students to take advantage of some stimulus money (see Section 26).
But the primary question is, Do charter schools work?
For that, let's turn to Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which in June, 2009, issued the first national assessment of charter school performance. Looking at 2403 charter schools (there are 4700+ nationwide) in 15 states and D.C., Stanford's researchers found...
The group portrait shows wide variation in performance. The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools ["Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States," Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes, June 2009, p. 1].
Results varied state by state. Charter schools in Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, and Missouri produced better results than traditional schools. Charter schools in California, D.C., Georgia, and North Carolina show no clear gains. Kids in Charter schools in Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, and Texas appeared to learn less than they would have if they'd stuck with their old schools.
Results also varied by grade. Elementary and middle school kids posted gains in charter schools, but high schoolers did worse in charter schools.
The differences in learning are pretty small: average growth among charter school students lagged by just 1% of a standard deviation in reading and 3% of a standard deviation in math. Charter schools on average have produced lower learning outcomes, but the difference is so small you probably won't notice it unless you break out a spreadsheet and run some stats that most school boards and state legislators won't understand.
Now this study doesn't say, "Don't pass SB 63!" The Stanford researchers note that charter schools show particulary good results for children in poverty, which could bode well for an American Indian pilot charter school. Then again, the study also found minority students (black and Hispanic; no separate data on American Indians) performed worse in charter schools.
There may be other benefits that advocates for charter schools may be able to cite (like union-busting?). But if the CREDO study is correct, educational benefits alone won't be enough to sell SB 63.