The Little Engine That Could

Sunday, April 30, 2000

More and more Americans are becoming acquainted with charter schools: independent public schools of choice, free of the usual rules but accountable for results. There are now nearly 1,700 such schools in thirty-two states and the District of Columbia, enrolling approximately 370,000 students. California's 240 charter schools enroll nearly one in three (around 105,000) of these students.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

Yet, despite all the attention they receive, charter schools are dwarfed by the behemoth of U.S. public education, enrolling only about three-quarters of 1 percent of all public school students. Consequently, many see them as scattered specialty shops, academic havens—perhaps even fortresses—for the families who choose them. Charter schools, according to this view, are not true agents of change in the larger public school system. Rather, they may retard change by easing the demand for reform and giving dissidents an outlet.

The public school establishment has reacted to charter schools in one of four ways: stopping them cold, keeping them few and weak, fighting back and outdoing them, or embracing them. The first two reactions are the most common. Yet the charter movement has gained enough momentum to challenge this kind of opposition, especially at the district level.

In Lansing, Michigan, five charter schools have opened in recent years, siphoning off 1,000 of the district's 19,500 students. In response, the district undertook an aggressive marketing plan that included local television ads during the 1998 Winter Olympics. About a hundred students returned to the public system.

Yet the most notable district responses to charter school competition go beyond marketing. In Flagstaff, Arizona, former superintendent Kent D. Matheson added full-day kindergarten classes and several magnet schools to his district. Douglas County, Colorado, added a gifted and talented program, as did Battle Creek, Michigan, which also created two new schools in 1998 in partnership with the for-profit Edison Project in response to three charter schools that opened that year. In Boston, where five of Massachusetts's first fifteen charter schools were located, the district and its teachers' union launched a "pilot schools" project, which allowed regulations and contract provisions to be waived.

Competition with charter schools has made a positive difference for some district schools. In Arizona, a study sorted district responses into low-cost (e.g., using flyers and other marketing tools) and costlier moves (e.g., starting a full-day kindergarten program). Although the mere whisper of charters may trigger low-cost responses, the authors contend that only "direct competition from charter schools pushes districts to adopt high-cost school reforms." Furthermore, positive achievement results were most apparent in subperforming districts. These findings undercut the fears of school choice opponents who believe that competition will harm poorly performing students.

Charter schools can release a burst of energy from educators, improve academic performance, and increase parent involvement.

School districts can also achieve their own purposes with the help of charter schools, creating schools not possible under the usual ground rules, using them as labs to test innovations, or employing them as part of a broader reform strategy.

State certification requirements would have made a new Montessori school in Mesa, Arizona, difficult to staff, but the district used a charter school law to cut red tape. Houston contracted with Thaddeus Lott, director of the path-breaking Wesley Elementary School, to operate Wesley and several schools nearby as a charter cluster, partly to liberate him from the district's own bureaucratic burdens. Lott now reports to Houston's superintendent. The San Carlos Charter Learning Center, California's first charter school, was created by the district's board and superintendent "as a research and development site for the San Carlos School District [whose] successful innovations will be transferable to other schools in the district," says district superintendent Don Shalvey.

Some of the innovations inspired by charter schools are now districtwide staples: among them personalized learning plans, thematic instructional units, multiage classrooms, and technology-based instruction. The charter also brought flexibility to district hiring policies and an ability to outsource some education services.

Another version of a district's embrace of the charter idea as a way to achieve its own end can be found in the Kingsburg district in California. Led by former superintendent Ron Allvin, the entire K—8 district went charter, as did a district in Cartersville, Georgia. By doing so, Superintendent Harold Barnett accomplished three purposes: releasing a burst of energy from his educators, improving academic performance, and increasing parent involvement.

School change comes slowly. But charter schools are more influential than their numbers suggest.

Other studies find that charter schools have similar effects. Eric Rofes of Humboldt State University has documented district responses in twenty-five communities, including some in California. Nine of the twenty-five districts he examined claimed that charter schools had no effects; five experienced such "strong" effects as a significant loss of students and money; seven felt "moderate" student and money loss; and four acknowledged "mild" loss of students or money. Among the other effects Rofes found in response to charters were that schools organized around a specific philosophy or theme; after-school or all-day programs were added; more services were outsourced; and teacher and staff morale improved. Not surprisingly, large urban districts were less likely to feel the impact of charter schools since they are so big and sluggish and thus apt to be less responsive to competition. School change comes slowly. But charter schools are more influential than their numbers suggest. They are at the epicenter of America's most powerful education reform earthquake, and their rumblings are beginning to affect school systems and U.S. education at large.