In a free market, economic theory states that competition is the driving force of productivity, supply and demand, and the panacea for monopolistic control. Education reformers have long sought to build a public education system that closely resembles the free market with its uninhibited choices, limited government involvement, and private goods.
In a recent Education Next article entitled “Competition with Charters Motivates Districts,” the pro-charter authors explain the impact of charter schools on traditional public schools’ enrollment, revenue, and student achievement. The article opens with a typical charter advocate’s selling point: introducing charter schools into the mix of public education creates competition (for scarce funding resources, particularly) that motivates low-performing districts to improve and “reclaim” the students (read: funding) that are rightfully theirs.
Another positive externality of charter schools is their alleged ability to raise the bar for all schools by optimizing student learning/engagement and producing exemplary standardized test scores. However, the 2013 CREDO report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (summarized here by the Center for Public Education), demonstrates the vast majority of charter schools are no more effective than traditional public schools.
Nonetheless, charter schools are popping up all over the country and are here to stay. The next step is to examine whether they are having an effect, and to what extent, on the operation of traditional public schools.
What is the visible evidence of the impact of charter schools on traditional public schools? According to the authors:
- Charter schools have seen a 59% jump in enrollment from 2007 to now, from 1.3 million to 2 million students (with 53 million students currently enrolled in traditional public schools)
- Districts across the country have adopted competitive marketing and recruitment strategies to compete for students (e.g., posting promotional flyers for New York City public schools)
- From 1999 to 2009, each year saw a 20% increase in the number of CMOs (for-profit charter school operators) in the marketplace
In what ways are charter schools influencing the traditional public schools?
- Washington, D.C., Phoenix, and Los Angeles are among the metropolitan areas to emulate successful charter school practices in their traditional public schools
- Charter schools are being rapidly introduced in high-poverty areas (such as in New York City under former Chancellor of the NYC Department of Education, Joel Klein), thus creating more challenges for public school enrollment and funding
- Atlanta Public Schools recently won an ED grant to co-participate in training led by the KIPP Metro Atlanta
- Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans and others are partnering with CMOs and education management organizations (EMOs) to strengthen public school operations
What is next?
- School districts will likely continue to reassess their strategies and attitudes toward charters, as they adjust to the influx of outside competition
- More partnerships between traditional public schools and charter schools are likely as schools recognize that putting students’ needs first requires sharing best practices
- Traditional public schools will likely increase their marketing efforts (or launch initial marketing strategies) in their communities to recruit students who may be considering charter school enrollment, thus utilizing scarce financial resources in uncharted waters
- School districts may follow Denver school board members’ lead in encouraging administrators to analyze data regarding charter school effectiveness prior to committing additional resources to charter and innovation schools
- Districts may begin opening more pilot or innovation schools to bridge the gaps between high-performing charters and low-performing traditional public schools
- Unfortunately, access to a high-quality public education may start to be seen as more of a consumer (private) good than a public good, per David Tyack and Larry Cuban in Tinkering Toward Utopia (1995)
In responding to change and competition, traditional public schools would be wise to take some Darwinian advice: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”