Study Looks at How Traditional Schools Respond to Charter Competition

A new study is attempting to figure out if the competitive pressure brought on by charter school expansion around the country is forcing traditional district schools to adopt policies that make them more attractive to students. Writing for Education Next, the study’s authors Marc J. Holley, Anne J. Egalite and Martin F. Lueken skip over the previous small-scale studies and articles about the responses of urban school districts to the charter movement, and instead look at media reports covering the reactions of those in a position to shape policy to the losses of students to charters.

Researchers weren’t only looking at possible responses from district officials to growing charter competition, but also checking the level of awareness among officials to the perceived threat. Study authors limited the scope of their study by looking chiefly at urban districts with high minority enrollments where at least 6% of students are taking advantage of school choice options. The districts were then placed in four regional groups: Northeast, Midwest, South and West.

When the charter movement began in the early 1990s, few students were leaving the traditional system, and district officials were not particularly threatened with the loss of revenues as students and their funding went to other providers. That reality has changed. But before they can respond in meaningful ways, district officials need to recognize the new competitive market. Our first task was to find evidence that district officials recognize incentives associated with competing for students and meeting parental demand. We find at least one piece of evidence of competition awareness in all 12 cities, indicating that traditional public-school leaders generally acknowledge students’ alternative schooling option of attending a charter school.

Specifically, Holley, Egalite and Lueken point to the comments made by school board members in Denver who asked for a halt to charter school expansion until student outcomes could be properly evaluated. Likewise, former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education Joel Klein acknowledged the new competitive environment and spoke frequently of charter school competition as a positive thing, even writing a supportive op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Current head of the Los Angeles Unified School District John Deasy has also shown considerable awareness, although minus the WSJ editorial.

Contrary to the largely symbolic reactions to competition evident when the school choice movement was just beginning, we find evidence of significant changes in district policy and practice. The most common positive response, found in 8 of the 12 locations, is district cooperation or collaboration with charter schools. We were even able to find evidence of this constructive response in Atlanta Public Schools, a district previously relatively unwelcoming to charter schools: in late October 2012, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a collaboration grant for teachers and administrators at B.E.S.T Academy Middle School, a district-run school in Atlanta, to participate in training conducted by the KIPP Metro Atlanta. The next three most-common constructive responses, found in seven locations, are partnerships with successful nonprofit CMOs or for-profit charter school operators, education management organizations (EMOs), to operate schools; the replication of successful charter school practices; and an increase in active efforts to market district offerings to students and families.

The growing level of awareness means that the response to charters has significantly shifted. While only a few years ago, the typical response from education traditionalists was to keep their head in the sand, recently there have been a growing tendency not only to confront the issue head-on but to even work in partnership with charters to improve student outcomes. Just this month, New York City announced a partnership initiative between well-performing charters and underperforming district schools.