School & District Management

Ed. Department Finds Charters Spur Existing Schools To Improve

By Joetta L. Sack — June 20, 2001 3 min read
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New Department of Education research concludes that charter schools are helping other public schools and districts improve through competition.

Districts are improving educational programs in regular public schools as a result of competition from charters, and charter schools are feeling pressure to hold their students and staffs accountable to high standards, according to two separate reports released jointly late last week.

The reports, part of a four-year evaluation of the fast-growing movement to create the publicly financed but largely independent schools, give a boost to the Bush administration’s position on public school choice. The Education Department estimates there are now about 2,100 charter schools in 36 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

For More Information

The reports, “Challenge and Opportunity: The Impact of Charter Schools on School Districts” and “A Study of Charter School Accountability,” are available from the Department of Education.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige announced the findings in a speech to the Manhattan Institute in New York on June 14. President Bush has promoted school choice—through both charter schools and vouchers for private schools—throughout last year’s presidential campaign and during the first few months of his term.

The Clinton administration, also a big supporter of charter schools, commissioned the studies.

“The good news is that charter schools do not just help the students they serve directly, they also prod the entire system to improve,” Mr. Paige said, according to the prepared text of his speech. The results show promising results, particularly for students in low-performing schools, he added.

Researchers from RPP International, based in Emeryville, Calif., visited 49 school sites in five states. The researchers report that many of those districts had added extra programs and services at existing schools, such as gifted education or all-day kindergarten. The schools were more responsive after their districts added charter schools and had improved communication with parents, the researchers found.

More than half the districts’ leaders surveyed said they had lost money from their budgets because of student transfers to charter schools. Most of those reported becoming more “customer-service oriented” as a result and said they began watching the charter schools’ enrollment figures and assessment scores.

Interpretations Differ

Charter schools also appear to have significant accountability measures in place, although by nature they do not follow most of the same regulations as other public schools, according to the other report, conducted by a University of Washington team. While the authors caution that the charter school movement and most such schools are still quite new, they report that charter schools feel pressure from parents and benefactors to provide a high-quality education.

The researchers spent two years, from 1997 to 1999, studying the day-to-day workings of charter schools.

They found that charter schools have “high-stakes relationships” with many entities, including government agencies, the schools’ teachers, donors, and families. Charter schools would not be able to survive without them and thus pay close attention to their needs, according to the report.

While many outside researchers had not yet seen the research, at least two groups were quick to offer their opinions.

The American Federation of Teachers said the report formed sweeping conclusions with little evidence.

Joan Devlin, an associate director for education issues, said the report that examined districts’ responses actually proved that the districts were spending more on administrative tasks, such as marketing, to woo back students. But there was no evidence that the presence of charters had resulted in better teaching in existing schools, she said. Ms. Devlin noted that one study listed her as an advisory board member and another AFT researcher, Howard Nelson, as a peer reviewer though both met with researchers only briefly.

But the report gave a boost to a leading charter school group.

“The ripple is real,” said Jeanne Allen, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform. “It’s good to have empirical research to back up what groups like ours have found for years.”

She said the reports might persuade some states to pass charter school laws. But they may have to wait until next year, as many of those states have ended this year’s legislative sessions, she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as Ed. Department Finds Charters Spur Existing Schools To Improve


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