NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

School Competition Emerging, Thanks To Charters

February 12, 1999

Charter schools, which are growing in number, are beginning to force traditional public schools to try to improve, observers report. But there are still too few charters to have a major impact on American education. Reformers hope that will change over time.

  • A school district would have to lose 6 percent and 9 percent of its enrollment to charters to feel real pressure to compete, says Caroline Hoxby, who teaches the economics of education at Harvard University.
  • Arizona, with 274 charter schools -- more than any other state -- counts fewer than 4 percent of its youngsters in charters.
  • When 5 percent of Washington, D.C., children fled the city's traditional public schools for charters last fall, the school system -- among the most wretched in the country -- fought the chartering of new schools, but did little to win children back by firing awful teachers or improving reading scores.
  • Nevertheless, University of California researcher Eric Rofes studied 25 school districts for signs of competition, and found that one-quarter of them made big changes to their programs because of competition from charters.

Here are some of the improvements he found:

  • The Grand Rapids, Mich., school district started an environmental-sciences middle-school program when an environmental-sciences charter opened nearby.
  • Lansing, Mich., began all-day kindergarten, and Williamsburg, Mass., school districts offered after-school programs when charters opened.
  • After a charter in Orleans, Mass., bought vans to ferry its students to community activities, the public high school did the same thing.
  • Arizona's Wilson elementary school district was so distraught that students were dropping out of ninth grade that it chartered a high school of its own.

In themselves, these reforms may not be earth-shaking, but they demonstrate that competition works, experts point out.

Source: June Kronholz, "Charter Schools Begin to Prod Public Schools Toward Competition," Wall Street Journal, February 12, 1999.


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