School Choice & Charters

In Search of Innovation? Look to Charters, Not Private Schools

By Sean Cavanagh — June 05, 2012 2 min read
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Private school choice—at least in its current form—hasn’t done much to produce new educational models, as measured by innovation, entrepreneurship, and changes in the structure of schools, a new study argues.

Looking for examples of changes that have shaken the system? You’re more likely to find it in charter schools, not privates, say authors Greg Forster and James L. Woodworth.

Their study, “The Greenfield School Revolution and School Choice,” was released Tuesday by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which supports vouchers and other choice options. Their analysis attempts to make an empirical investigation of whether school choice is contributing to new breeds of educational models, which would show up in changes to the types of schools, their size, and other metrics.

The term “greenfield,” as the authors define it, is meant to refer to circumstances in which there are clear and unobstructed opportunities for investors, engineers, and builders to invent and grow. The authors look for examples of similarly rich environments in education.

The study uses data from the U.S. Department of Education to examine the composition of private schools in states and cities with substantial school choice populations, from Milwaukee to Florida to Arizona. They find “little evidence that existing school choice programs are transforming the structure of private schools.” In its current form, “school choice does not appear to be having an impact that is sufficiently large enough to produce visible transformation of the private school sector.”

Charter schools, in contrast, have grown rapidly in a number of the states and cities studied by the authors. Charters are public schools, run by nonprofits, private companies, or other entities that operate with varying degrees of independence from local districts. While many charter schools fail, innovative strategies also abound within that sector, the study says. The authors point to what they see as innovative strategies through charters and other educational models, such as KIPP, which emphasizes high expectations for performance and behavior and carves out more instructional time for students, and Carpe Diem and Khan Academy, which put a heavy focus on online instruction. [I’ve corrected the original post to make it clear that Khan Academy is not a charter school, but a nonprofit online provider that works with charters, as well as public and private schools.]

Why aren’t private school choice programs producing this transformation? It’s partly because the current lineup of choice programs transfer students from “marginally less effective public schools to marginally more effective private schools,” the study says. Today, private schools that survive in the market dominated by public schools tend not to be the daring innovators, but those that serve “niche markets"—such as religious or specialized instruction—and that are relatively risk-averse. As the authors put it:

Ask any economist: Niche market providers are some of the least entreprenurial of all enterprises. They are in little danger of losing their client base, because their clients have few options they find highly attractive. (That's what makes it a niche market in the first place.) Private schools don't innovate very much for the same reason government school monopoly doesn't innovate at all. They don't have to. ... As superior as private schools may be in other respects, when it comes to institutional support for innovation, existing private schools are at best only marginally better than standard public schools."

What’s needed, Forster and Woodworth contend, is a much broader, “universal” system of school choice, in which parents would demand high performance and schools would have to compete with each other to improve. As it now stands, they say, private school choice programs are “small, underfunded, and overregulated"—and not driving major changes in education.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.