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School Choice & Charters

Gauging the Impact of Competition

By Lynn Olson — May 24, 2000 18 min read

The Odyssey School opened two years ago in a church basement. This year, it’s housed in a combination of steel buildings and modular classrooms at a defunct airport. But if all goes well, the fledgling charter school could soon be sharing a brand-new building with a regular district elementary school.

Last month, the Denver school board approved an unusual plan to split the yet-to-be-constructed site between the two schools—an arrangement the board hopes will usher in a new era of cooperation between charters and the 70,000-student district.

That’s a far cry from how the Denver system approached charter schools in 1993, when Colorado began allowing the publicly funded but largely independent schools. The district initially rejected the majority of charter applications and launched an unsuccessful legal battle challenging the state’s right to overrule such decisions. Today, though, four charter schools are open here, and several more are in the works.

“The district has really made some radical transformations in terms of how they’re approaching charters,” said Van Schoales, the director of Odyssey. “There’s just been a very different approach.”

About This Series

Part 1: April 26, 2000.“Redefining ‘Public’ Schools.” The rise of charter schools, voucher programs, and other new ways of providing public education.

Part 2:May 3, 2000.“Charters, Vouchers Earning Mixed Report Card.”
Are these innovations leading to better student achievement?
Part 3:May 10, 2000.“Charter Schools: Choice, Diversity May Be At Odds.” The color of choice: charter schools and race.
Part 4: May 17, 2000. “Accountability Measures Vary Widely.” Keeping track: holding charter and voucher programs accountable.
> Part 5:May 24, 2000. How traditional public schools are reacting (or not) to the competition.
This series is supported in part by the Ford Foundation.

Like Denver, a growing number of districts across the country are also learning to live with charter schools. Nine years after the first such school was created in St. Paul, Minn., nearly 1,700 are operating in 34 states and the District of Columbia.

But the question remains: Are public schools any better for it?

In theory, charter schools, publicly financed tuition vouchers, and other forms of school choice are designed to improve public education by pressuring traditional schools to do better and showcasing successful innovations they will feel obligated to copy.

But experience suggests that a more complex dynamic determines how districts and their schools respond to choice, if they respond at all. Although competition appears to be spurring modest changes in some district schools, to date it hasn’t resulted either in the financial disaster that opponents predicted or in the dramatic responses for which proponents might have hoped.

Elaine Gantz Berman, the president of the Denver school board, says that while charter schools are more widely accepted than they used to be, their impact on existing public schools has been minimal.

“The charter schools kind of operate on their own, and the public schools operate on their own,” said Ms. Berman, a strong supporter of charters. Unless that changes, she added, “I’m not sure that the original intent of charter schools will be realized.”

Elsewhere, the results are much the same. Bruno V. Manno, a senior fellow at the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation and a co-author of the recent book Charter Schools in Action, describes four stages in the traditional school system’s reaction to charters: stop them cold; keep them weak and few; successfully compete with them; or embrace the charter idea and use it for the system’s own purposes.

Most districts fall in the middle two categories, said Mr. Manno, either working to limit the number or autonomy of charters, or starting to fight back.

In Massachusetts, for example, a commission charged with conducting an independent evaluation of the state’s charter schools initiative concluded that “although many districts are losing students and financial resources to charter schools, to date, there is no evidence of a large-scale competition response.”

Similarly, a study of the effects of competition from charters and vouchers on the Milwaukee public schools by Frederick M. Hess, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, concluded, “It is difficult to fully convey how little impact any of this has had on the great swath of MPS classrooms and schools.”

A Question of Scale

To many, the question of what effect charters and vouchers have on the nation’s educational system is vital because traditional public schools will continue to serve a majority of children well into the future. Unless these alternative ways of providing public education can somehow move the existing system, they assert, they’re simply a nice option for a small fraction of young people.

As fast as charter schools are growing, they still serve less than 1 percent of the school-age population. And the country has only three publicly funded voucher programs—in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida—involving a total of about 150 schools.

With numbers so low, charters and vouchers may be causing no more discomfort than the proverbial pea under the mattress: It’s the rare district that feels the pinch.

“Charter schools are all so small and, generally, so spread out, and the district is so big, that what’s another school?” said Richard Fulton, the director of the Compass Montessori Charter School, part of the 89,000-student Jefferson County, Colo., schools. “I’ve got 200 kids here, .. and I probably don’t take more than five kids from any one school. So they don’t even notice these people are gone.”

Enrollment in the nearby Douglas County, Colo., schools, meanwhile, is rising so rapidly that there are enough students to go around for everyone. “We’re the fastest- growing district around,” Superintendent Rick O’Connell said of Douglas County, which has 33,000 students and another 3,000 coming each year. Though the district has six charters, serving about 4 percent of its student population, “we can absorb the loss a lot easier than a district that is not growing,” he said.

In some cases, the creation of a charter school can even ease the pressure on school districts—absolving them of the need to build a new building or to respond to unsatisfied and vocal parents.

Competitive effects may also be muted because states and districts often try to cushion schools from the financial blow created when their students depart for charters—a policy that proponents of school choice argue prevents a true test of the idea that competition would lead to better schools.

In Massachusetts, for example, the state reimburses districts for financial losses stemming from charter school enrollments, with the reimbursement decreasing gradually over time. In New Jersey, many urban districts that lost students to charters simultaneously experienced an influx of cash stemming from the settlement of a decades-old school finance suit.

But for some districts, charters are definitely a drain on resources, said Stan Garnett, the board president of the 26,000-student Boulder Valley district just outside Denver. Colorado law now requires that charters be funded at 95 percent of the sending district’s per-pupil operating expenditure.

“Every charter school kid costs us virtually all of the operational funds we get from the state,” Mr. Garnett said, noting that charters have both helpful and troublesome aspects. “I really believe that it’s impossible for us to make up the revenue that’s lost through the efficiencies you would hope for by the reallocation of staff and the like.”

While the financial threat is supposed to spur district schools to improve, some worry that it contributes to a hostile or suspicious attitude on the part of some district officials. That attitude may also mute the effect of charters.

Many principals and teachers in traditional public schools view the very existence of charters as a slap in the face and so are reluctant to learn from them. Moreover, they argue, until charter schools can demonstrate a record of higher student achievement, there is little evidence they are an example worth emulating.

“There’s a great deal of suspicion toward charter schools,” said Michael Mintrom, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University, who has studied their impact in that state. “Superintendents feel that these schools are competing with them and taking funds away from them, so why should they be interested in what they do?”

‘Old-Fashioned’ Practices

Other observers question whether charters are doing anything innovative enough to copy in the first place—at least when it comes to curriculum and instruction.

The Odyssey School, for example, is an Expeditionary Learning School—a model of whole-school reform that is also found in some district schools nationwide. Many of the charter schools in Colorado are Core Knowledge schools, which stress a traditional core curriculum. But that approach, too, is used in many existing public schools.

Based on his study of charter schools in four states, researcher Bryan C. Hassel found that the schools’ “innovations,” by and large, were the same as those proposed elsewhere and, to a limited extent, were already being carried out by regular public schools. And a 1998 study for the Massachusetts Department of Education found that while some charter schools were implementing novel practices, many stressed features that could be characterized as “good, old-fashioned education practices,” including some their districts had abandoned.

“Looking at the evidence that I have, you could make a fairly strong argument that the line of direction for innovation has gone from the traditional schools to the charter schools and not the other way around,” Mr. Mintrom said. “They actually have been basically picking up on things that were known to the broader educational system anyway.”

Researchers and educators also note that even when charters are doing something worth adopting, few ways of disseminating that information to others are available. Where districts are openly hostile to charters, officials are unlikely to encourage such communication. And even when they are more receptive, there are few incentives and even less time for the fledgling schools to share what they do.

“I’ve been so busy running this school, and teaching, and all the other stuff, that we have had no opportunity to package what we’ve learned and disseminate it,” said Rexford Brown, the executive director of PS 1, a 240-student charter school for grades 5-12 in Denver.

“We’re dealing with a system that is not very good at learning from its own schools,” he added, “let alone from someone else.”

Behaving Differently

When researchers talk about the impact of charter schools on the existing system so far, they tend to use terms like “ripple effects” rather than “tidal waves” of change.

Some districts have created their own, in-house charters designed to outshine the competition. Others have actively encouraged the creation of charters in their midst. Even some whole districts have converted to charter status.

But, in most cases, schools and districts respond more modestly, if at all. One relatively common approach is to add specific features of nearby charters that are attractive to parents, such as all-day kindergartens, before- and after-school programs, and special theme or focus schools.

“We offer all-day kindergarten pretty much in all 34 of our elementary schools because most of the charter schools will offer that,” said Richard J. Halik, the superintendent of the 18,000-student Lansing, Mich., district. The district has also spent thousands of dollars on marketing, he said, including billboards, inserts in the local newspaper, and spots on television in an effort to keep or win back families.

The Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that advocates school choice, has amassed hundreds of similar examples. “So far, we have seen that wherever a large number of charters are clustered, traditional schools begin to behave differently in order to keep up,” the organization concludes in its report, Charter Schools: Today Changing the Face of American Education.

In general, researchers suggest, small and medium-size districts are more likely to respond to the threat of competition than larger ones. That was the case in Inkster, Mich., a 1,500-student district where the school board in February turned over the management of all its schools to Edison Schools Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit manager of public schools. District leaders took the dramatic step, in part, because of the loss of students to neighboring districts and charter schools.

Edison is now negotiating to manage schools in about 19 other Michigan districts, said Deborah McGriff, the vice president of the New York City-based company. “One of the things that charters have stimulated in Michigan are contracts with Edison,” she said. “They admit they hate us, but they want to save their systems more.”

Dual Pressures

But in many places, it’s hard to prove that changes are a direct response to charters or other forms of competition, particularly when schools are also under pressure to raise test scores and improve accountability as a result of state mandates.

In Florida, children in schools that receive an F from the state for two out of four years can use a state-financed voucher to attend a public, private, or religious school of their choice. A recent analysis by Carol Innerst, a former education reporter for The Washington Times, concluded that all of the districts with failing schools were taking significant steps to improve them, including providing tutoring, extending the academic day and year, and adding Saturday classes. But whether those changes were due specifically to the threat of competition or to the accountability provisions more generally is hard to determine.

Either way, the strategy of using competition in combination with standards-driven accountability measures is clearly gaining hold, as the education platforms of both leading presidential candidates suggest.

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the presumptive Republican nominee, proposes using federal money to help families in failing schools send their children to other public or private schools, if the schools do not improve after three years. His Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, would require that chronically low-performing schools receiving federal money either be “reconstituted"—fully restaffed—or be converted to charter status.

Similarly, in Colorado, a new law empowers state officials to convert schools that have received an F from the state to independent charter schools if they fail to improve after three years.

“At a time when we’re trying to reform the mainstream system, I think a little competition is healthy because it drives the system with a greater sense of urgency to embrace standards-based reform,” said S. Paul Reville, the chairman of the Massachusetts Education Reform Review Commission, which monitors implementation of the state’s 1993 school reform law.

But some charter school proponents contend that the biggest contribution charters make could be structural, rather than pedagogical. That’s not surprising, since charters are primarily a governance—rather than a curriculum—reform.

“What we say is that the real lesson is the conditions,” said Dan French, the executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education, a Boston organization that represents that district’s “pilot schools,” a group of public schools with charter-like freedoms. “If you offer all schools the same autonomy over budgets, staffing, curriculum, governance, and the school calendar,” he said, “it enables the school to do more good practice more of the time.”

In particular, proponents argue, charters offer important lessons about smallness; the value of focusing on a coherent mission; the ability to spend money and hire staff as school leaders see fit; and the importance of reaching out to parents.

A 1998 report for the Massachusetts education department noted that, while charters ranged from progressive to highly traditional schools, what set them apart was their unifying focus, their ability to hire people who believed in that focus, and their strong sense of community.

“I think the notion of smaller schools is an innovation, and it’s such a basic thing that we sometimes look past it,” said Jon Schroeder, the director of the Charter Friends National Network, based in St. Paul. “If we start to see districts opening smaller schools and subdividing larger schools, they won’t admit it, but I think that’s a definite impact.”

During the 1998-99 school year, the median number of students in charter schools was 137, compared with 475 in all public schools nationwide.

In addition to their smaller size, said Mr. Brown of PS 1, the Denver charter school, “I think that charters are showing that school-based decisionmaking and management is perfectly feasible—that a group of nonprofessionals, nonbureaucrats, can be given their entire school budget and make wise educational and business decisions with that money.”

He added: “I think that may turn out to be the most important influence we have on our districts, as time goes by.”

‘Lightning Bolts’

Whether existing schools or districts change in response to charters depends largely on their leadership, many observers of the movement agree.

“Charter laws and schools don’t—can’t—change districts or schools,” said Ted Kolderie, a senior associate with the Center for Policy Studies, based in St. Paul. “Only the people who run districts change districts. The ‘ripple’ notion, the pebble dropping in the water, is fallacious. It assumes the water is liquid. Sometimes the water is frozen. Whether there’s a ripple depends on the water, not the pebble.”

Not surprisingly, it’s reform-minded superintendents and principals who have taken the most advantage of charters to leverage changes in their own systems.

Don Shalvey, for example, the superintendent of the 2,700-student San Carlos schools in California, created the first charter school in the state in 1992 to serve as a laboratory for research-and-development efforts in the district. He has since persuaded two of the district’s eight existing schools to become charters, a number that could rise to five this coming fall. In addition, he is the chief executive officer of University Public Schools, a nonprofit group that has raised nearly $4 million to help create charters elsewhere in the state.

“We think there is some incredible value to choice,” Mr. Shalvey said. “We think that, over time, choice makes us more accountable.”

In Springfield, Mass., both the mayor and Superintendent Peter Negroni sit on the board of the Sabis International School, a for-profit charter school. And Mr. Negroni has purposely looked for ways to form relationships between charter schools and the 25,000-student district, from including charter employees in professional-development seminars to helping with transportation.

“When charter schools came to the forefront, I saw them as lightning bolts to accelerate reform,” he said. “Charter schools were a driving force in getting people to think about the problem of getting all kids to achieve high standards in a different way.”

In Denver, Superintendent Sidney “Chip” Zullinger, who resigned unexpectedly last week, said he viewed charters as a spur to his own efforts to move decisionmaking authority down to individual schools and to re-engage local communities in education.

“I think charters are about the re-creation of common communities of interest around children, where you can pair together parents and teachers with similar belief systems,” he explained. “It’s that kind of intimacy and community that charter schools have created. If we’re smart, we’re going to see if we can try to embody those lessons in all of our schools.”

Under the agreement being negotiated by the Denver district and the Odyssey School, a proposed 600-student elementary school will instead house two separate schools of about 300 students each. In exchange for use of the building and other district services, Odyssey has agreed to be reimbursed at only 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil operating expenditures, instead of 95 percent.

As part of the negotiations, administrators have had to figure the cost of services the district typically provides to individual schools, something the district has not done in the past. In the long term, argues Ms. Berman, the president of the school board, that could make it easier to give all schools more authority over their budgets.

The district is also exploring giving charter-like independence to at least one of its existing schools, Manual High School. Nancy Sutton, the principal of the 1,000-student school, has proposed breaking it up into six smaller schools. As part of that effort, she has requested more freedom on employment practices and the allocation of resources.

“I think a good charter school provides choices, and I believe that choice is one of the most important freedoms we have today,” Ms. Sutton said, “so I’m all for it. It also, I think, is putting pressure on our entire establishment to rise to the opportunity, to investigate things that we should have investigated years ago.”

But while many agree that improving the existing system should be one goal of charter schools, they’re reluctant to judge the success of the movement on that basis.

“I think it should be part of the charter movement,” said Mr. Schoales, the director of Odyssey. “I think it’s secondary, though. If we can, I’d like Odyssey to have an impact on the Denver public schools, but not at the expense of Odyssey’s program and kids.”

“We all want to have a salutary impact on the system of some kind,” added Mr. Brown of PS 1. “But must we have that in order for the movement to be considered a success? I don’t know. I don’t think we must.”

Our job, number one, is to create a great school that serves our parents and students to our best ability.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2000 edition of Education Week as Gauging the Impact of Competition


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