A growing body of research suggests charter schools provide a good quality education relative to the traditional district schools from which their students transferred. This is especially true for low-income and minority students – the primary beneficiary of most charter schools nationwide.
A new report by Will Dobbie of Princeton and Roland Fryer of Harvard, shows significant achievement gains for low-income students in Harlem attending charter schools. Importantly, these low-income students are far more likely to attend college than their traditional school peers.
Even the CREDO report from Stanford University now states that charter schools, on balance, provide a slightly higher quality education. The study finds that students in poverty attending charter schools gain an extra 14 days of learning for reading and 22 days of extra learning in math. English language learners in charter schools gain an additional 43 days of learning in reading and 36 days in mathematics. The much misunderstood CREDO report in 2009 also found charter schools had a significant positive impact for students in poverty.
With solid academic achievement and a nationwide enrollment exceeding 2 million students, charter schools are gathering steam. So how do districts react when faced with competition from charters?
A new report in EducationNext, by researchers at the Walton Family Foundation and the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, attempts to answer that question.
The researchers selected 12 urban areas that had at least 60 percent minority student population and 60 percent low-income to create a more accurate comparison with the typical charter school population. They also limited their research to districts with a charter school enrollment that was at least 6 percent of the overall enrollment within the district. According to the article, Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University believes this threshold is high enough that districts will respond to competitive pressure.
After selecting the districts that met these criteria, the researchers combed through 8,000 newspaper articles to locate instances of districts reacting to competition from charter schools. When they discovered an example, the researchers reviewed district meeting minutes to uncover if and how the district responded.
They divided the responses into 13 action categories, some positive and some negative. Positive responses included replicating charter practices, collaborating with charter schools, creating pilot or innovation schools and expanding or improving school offerings. Negative responses included creating legal obstacles for charter schools, blocking access to facilities and using regulations to restrict choice and competition.
The most common response, found in 8 of the 12 districts, was to collaborate with charters. The most common negative response, found in 3 of the 12 districts, was to restrict access to facilities (i.e., refuse to share unused space or school buildings with charter schools). Overall, the researchers discovered that the districts had more positive responses than negative ones.
Overall this is a good sign, though more research needs to be done as charter schools – and the school choice movement – expand. School districts should always put students first, whether or not they educate the child. By collaborating with and emulating successful charter schools – rather than blocking and fighting – school districts can make an even bigger impact on student achievement.