Through Competition, Charter Schools Spur
Improvement of Existing Schools

According to two separate research reports from the Department of Education released jointly in June, charter schools are feeling pressure to hold their students and staffs accountable to high standards and districts and are improving educational programs in regular public schools as a result of competition from charter schools.

The Bush administration's position on school choice has been given a boost by these reports, part of a four-year evaluation of the fast growing charter school movement to create publicly financed but largely independent schools. In 36 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, it is estimated by the Education Department that there are currently about 2,100 charter schools now in existence.

In a speech to the Manhattan Institute in New York on June 14, 2001, Secretary of Education Rod Paige announced the findings. Throughout last year's Presidential campaign and during the first few months of his term, President Bush had promoted school choice through both charter schools and vouchers for private schools. The studies were commissioned by the Clinton administration who showed great support for charter schools. According to the prepared text of his speech, Dr. Paige said, "The good news is that charter schools do not just help the students they serve directly, they also prod the entire system to improve." He added particularly for students in low-performing schools, the results demonstrate promising results.

In five states, 49 school sites were visited by researchers from RPP International, based in Emeryville, California. Many of those districtsí public schools had added extra programs and services at existing schools such as gifted education or all-day kindergarten to compete with the charter school programs. It was found by the researchers that after these districts added charter schools, the schools were more responsive and had improved communication with parents.

Since students transferred to charter schools, more than 50 percent of the districts' leaders surveyed said they had lost money from their budgets. As a result, most of those reported becoming more "customer-service oriented" and said they started watching the charter schools' enrollment figures and assessment scores.

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

The day-to-day workings of charter schools were studied by the researchers for two years, from 1997 to 1999. According to their findings, charter schools have "high-stakes relationships" with many entities, including government agencies, the schools' teachers, donors and families. One conclusion in the researchersí report was that charter schools would not be able to survive without these entities paying close attention to their needs.

One group unhappy with the positive results of charter schools is the National Education Association (NEA). The NEA may soon be taking aim at charter schools across the nation just months after they had successfully lobbied to kill a voucher proposal from the Bush administration's education package. According to the NEA (the nationís largest teachersí union), charter schools with their taxpayer-subsidies were granted special permission to operate independently from public school systems. Now they are demanding that charter schools adopt policies and restrictions that currently bind the nation's traditional public schools.

However, the union's policy is yet another obstacle to education reform put forth by a teachers' union that is hostile to change, innovation and flexibility say charter school supporters.

(Kelly O Beaucar, "Union Targets Charter Schools,", July 11, 2001; Joetta L. Sack, "Ed. Department Finds Charters Spur Existing Schools To Improve," Education Week, June 20, 2001)

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