How Charter Schools Do, and Don't Inspire Change in Traditional Public School Districts

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In 1991, the state of Minnesota succeeded in proposing and passing the first charter school legislation in the United States. Soon after, in 1992, California passed its own charter school legislation. Now, charter school legislation has passed in over 40 states and has enjoyed bi-partisan support from conservatives and liberals, and from some teachers' unions and entrepreneurs (Lubienski & Weitzel, 2010). Throughout the United States, school districts, non-for-profits, universities, and other organizations have sponsored charter schools in urban, suburban, and rural communities. One result of this proliferation is an increase in the competitive pressures that district-run public schools face.

Considering the growing numbers of charter schools and the continued effort to expand charter school legislation (Fact Sheet: Race to the Top, 2009), it is important for teachers, school leaders, teacher educators, students, families, and policymakers to understand the impact of charter schools. The wide-ranging and multi-faceted effects of charter school competition on district-run public schools have been studied in a variety of ways. Such studies have shown that the climate of the school, the nature of district leadership, and the motivation of teachers are directly related to a district's ability to respond to competitive pressure (Hess, 2001; Hess et al., 2001 a). Understanding what aspects of this competition provoke responses and what those responses bring can be of great benefit to those working in and leading district-run public schools and charter schools alike. If charter schools are to be viewed as an opportunity to improve student learning, rather than an obstacle to be overcome, teachers and school leaders should be aware of why and how districts typically respond to charter school competition.

Charter schools, like district-run public schools, receive public funding. Unlike district-run public schools, however, charter schools operate outside the traditional public education system and so are able to avoid much of the bureaucracy of the traditional system. In exchange for this freedom, charter schools are held to high accountability standards. Charter schools also typically circumvent traditional geographic school districts by opening themselves to students from across district boundaries; students who leave the district-run public school bring their public funding with them. Therefore, if a charter school fails to attract or retain students, it loses its funding and is forced to close. At the same time, district-run public schools are forced to compete with the charter schools for local students. In other words, both charter schools and district-run public schools are striving to attract the same students and families. This competition between the charter school and the district-run public school, many believe, will result in increased efficiency and effectiveness in both institutions (Chubb & Moe, 1990; Freidman, 1955; Hoxby, 2000).

For some, charter schools represent the hope of improved student learning and performance. One way charter schools can improve student learning is by leveraging competitive pressure to improve the performance of district-run public schools. Unfortunately, studies examining whether increased charter school competition has improved achievement at district-run public schools show mixed results. Some studies found small, positive results for charter school competition (Booker, Gilpatric, Gronberg, 86 Jansen, 2008; Sass, 2006), and some studies found no effects (Bettinger, 2005; Bifulco & Ladd, 2006).

Ideally, the introduction of a charter school, and the resulting increase in competitive forces in the local education market, may compel a public school district to respond to the potential loss of funding in terms of per-pupil dollars, or the loss of human capital--as the higher SES and more likely to be successful students are motivated to exit the district-run system. …