Academic journal article Education Next

Charters and the Common Good: The Spillover Effects of Charter Schools in New York City

Academic journal article Education Next

Charters and the Common Good: The Spillover Effects of Charter Schools in New York City

Article excerpt

CHARTER SCHOOLS REPRESENT a small share of the national education market: just 6.2 percent of all public schools and 4.6 percent of all students. But their rapid growth over the past two decades has captured an outsized measure of public attention, especially in communities where district and charter schools operate side by side.

Take New York City's Success Academy, a network of 46 schools led by Eva Moskowitz. Despite long waiting lists and well-documented academic gains for Success students, leaders are in a near-constant battle with city education officials for the space in under-utilized public-school buildings that will allow their programs to continue to grow. Most recently, Moskowitz issued a high-profile rejection of a city plan to house new students from six middle-school programs in two sites, which she and local newspaper editorial boards criticized as an unstable, temporary fix that would force families to travel too far to school.

These pitched battles often follow a similar script about the potential "spillover effects" of public charter schools on non-charter students, one which has informed political campaigns, protests, and even lawsuits. Advocates argue that charter expansion not only meets the needs of students currently on lengthy waiting lists, but also can improve performance at all public schools due to increased competition and opportunities to innovate and share successful strategies. Critics say that charters sap resources and siphon off motivated students from under-resourced district schools, which are often already serving poor and low-performing students. The debate is especially heated in communities that practice co-location, in which charters and district schools operate in the same building and share common spaces like libraries and gymnasiums.

To shed light on the question of spillover effects, I use data from New York City to estimate the effects of charter schools on students in two types of nearby district schools: those in the same neighborhood, and those that are co-located (in the same building). I find that students in district schools do better when charters open nearby: students in these schools earn higher scores on reading and math tests and are less likely to repeat a grade. The closer the schools, the larger the effect: co-location increases test scores by 0.08 standard deviations in math and 0.06 in reading.

These findings show that communities can expand charter schools to meet growing demand without putting district schools at risk of instability or failure. Far from an existential threat to their district-school neighbors, public charter schools can benefit not only their own students but also those in other programs down the street--or hallway.


The impact of public charter schools on their own students' academic performance is by now well-documented, showing wide variability overall but also clear evidence of large positive effects in many urban centers, including New York City. There is far less research, however, regarding the potential impacts that charters have on the academic performance of neighboring non-charter students.

Prior studies examining this question have focused on the district level or explored the effects of charter schools located within several miles of a traditional public school. But if the spillover effects of urban charter schools on district schools are confined to relatively small neighborhoods, then findings from prior analyses may well be underestimates.

I look at New York City, the nation's largest school district, where both charter and co-located schools have increased over the past decade. By 2013, charter schools accounted for 11 percent of all city schools, up from 2 percent about a decade earlier. Some 60 percent of all charter schools are in co-located buildings; by contrast, 47 percent of all public schools in New York City were co-located in 2013 (see Figure 1). …

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