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So What If Charter Competition Has a Negative Impact on Student Achievement in Traditional Public Schools?

October 31, 2007 3 min read

I respect Hank Levin greatly for starting Accelerated Schools, moving it from grant to fee-based revenues, and then turning over the national Comprehensive School Reform design nonprofit to its member organizations. His National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College does reasonably solid research, and gives a lot of new, young, lesser-known academics a forum. At one point NCSPE was a client of K-12Leads and Youth Service Markets Report. Still, I think it’s fair to say that the reports found on its website are framed by at least a modestly negative policy bias on the subject.

So what to make of University of Utah’s Yongmei Ni’s finding that three different methods “consistently show that charter competition has a negative impact on student achievement and school efficiency in Michigan’s traditional public schools. The effect... becomes more substantial in the long run, which are consistent with the conception of choice triggering a downward spiral in the most heavily impacted public schools?I’m going to leave a critique of the research method and findings in The Impact of Charter Schools on the Efficiency of Traditional Public Schools: Evidence from Michigan to others. Instead, I want to look at how the policy bias frames the finding and its implicit conclusion.

Assume it is true that instead of improving in the face of charter school competition, or even holding their own, the educational performance and efficiency of traditional public schools declines. Is this an argument against charter schools, or for higher levels of traditional school funding?

The tone and tenor of Ni’s writing, captured in his phrase “choice triggering a downward spiral in the most heavily impacted public schools,” suggests that he would not use it as an argument to ramp up efforts to form charter schools.

But what if we look at his finding from the perspective of taxpayers and students?
Assuming charter schools are doing no worse than traditional public schools (before they started to decline), we know they consume fewer total tax dollars per child. I see an argument for replacing traditional schools with charters.

This takes us to Ni’s implication that advocates rest their case for charter schools on the proposition that competition will improve all schools: “School choice advocates argue that introducing school choice will result in TPSs (traditional public schools) working more efficiently.”

That’s a vast overstatement. Thoughtful charter advocates will tell you that competition provides disincentives for traditional schools to maintain business as usual, that it should spur traditional school managers to reform their institutions, and that it can give leaders who want to improve their traditional schools useful leverage internally. Most, but certainly not all advocates, hope that the improvement of traditional public schools will be an outcome.

But we all know that competition creates losers as well as winners, and for a variety of reasons some charters and some traditional schools just won’t survive. Some won’t attract enough students to be financially viable, others won’t produce test scores that justify remaining open.

The idea that markets kill failures off, while monopolies allow them to prosper, lies at the core of the charter advocacy. Few charter advocates see the death of traditional schools districts as an objective. But by the same token, the preservation of traditional public education is not a legitimate end in and of itself either. The end we all should seek is vastly improved student outcomes, and if that means the end of traditional schools, it wouldn’t be in the interests of those who benefit from that arrangement, but it would be in the interests of students and taxpayers.

The introduction of the automobile was not in the best interest of liveries, carriage makers, or smithies, but few would argue that consumers should have kept them going instead of switching to cars - even with today’s interest in reducing our environmental footprints.

In the end, the problem with Ni, and to some extent NCSPE, is an unstated presumption that the traditional system of public education has legitimacy or value independent of its performance. Because it is more or less the infrastructure we have, it’s not advisable to tear it down willy-nilly. But let’s not confuse that fact with something like a belief in the divine right of kings.

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