Competition from Charters Pushes All Schools Forward

Published September 13, 2011

A large percentage of Americans do not know what to think about charter schools, even though these nontraditional public schools have begun quietly changing the way we all think about education.

Recent polling from Education Next and Harvard University ([]) indicates about 40 percent of Americans “either don’t understand what charter schools are or have not made up their minds about them,” while 43 percent support them and 18 percent oppose them. So the jury is still out on this 20-year experiment in innovation in public schooling, one receiving scads of media attention and endorsed by leaders from both major political parties, including President Barack Obama.

Evidently, greater public acknowledgment of these successes is still needed. These nontraditional public schools have used their administrative and financial flexibility to improve education through innovation.

In Houston ([]), for example, public schools are beginning to adopt ideas such as lengthening the school day, implementing one-on-one math tutoring with local engineers and accountants, and focusing more strongly on preparing students for college. These innovations all were introduced by successful charter schools in the area.

“We can’t sit idly by and let parents think that only the quality charter schools can educate poor kids well,” said Terry Grier, Houston’s superintendent. “If you see something good, why not try to replicate it?”

Competition evokes exactly this mentality, and it leads to a better education system. One Houston public high school, targeted for “reforms” for two decades, saw double-digit gains on test scores in spring 2010 after implementing charter-sparked initiatives, moving it from “unacceptable” to “acceptable” on the state’s report card system.

This is precisely what charter boosters have said would happen since the schools’ inception: Giving schools freedom to experiment in instruction, hiring and firing, and funding allocation will let them create a better fit for students attending and thus boost learning. If that doesn’t work, charters have another important failsafe—districts can, and do, close them relatively quickly.

This points to a reason parents who can manage to afford them greatly prefer private schools for their children: Private schools have even more flexibility, and even more accountability, in educating their students to parents’ satisfaction. Private schools can’t really compete with public schools, though, since large numbers of families cannot afford to pay both property taxes to support public schools and tuition for private education. Public schools thus have a large captive market.

Charter schools challenge this education monopoly by providing publicly funded education in a more nimble form. They save taxpayer money by, for example, tending to offer employees 401(k) accounts rather than the more expensive, nontransferable defined-benefit pensions. They can take tough, “no excuses” attitudes towards failure, both by students and by teachers. They can offer all-boys or all-girls schools to populations they believe need them, as an entrepreneur and community activist is attempting now in a low-income area in Milwaukee. They can bring kids back to school on Saturdays. They can try any of these methods, and any others, to see what works for a particular group of kids in a particular locale.

Moving away from the one-size-fits-all public education model clearly offers significant benefits to parents, students, and taxpayers. It’s important to give the public the good news about how charters benefit education for all children through the power of competition.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is an education research fellow and managing editor of School Reform News at The Heartland Institute.