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Research Shows Presence of Public Charter Schools Leads to Improvements in Traditional Public Schools

When a public charter school opens in a neighborhood, there are several impacts that are worth consideration: Will the charter school create pressure on neighboring traditional public schools (TPS) to make changes in their organization, instructional strategies, or outreach to families that may lead to improvements in student achievement? New research presented at the Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP) 38th Annual Conference suggests that traditional public schools do in fact respond to the presence of public charter schools. Yusuke Jinnai, a Ph.D candidate in Economics at the University of Rochester, examined the impact of opening public charter schools on achievement levels for students at a neighboring traditional public school in North Carolina. A few interesting findings from the study:

  • Public charter schools generated “a positive and significant direct impact on student achievement” in math and reading at nearby traditional public schools.
  • About 25 percent of this direct impact can be explained by low-achieving students switching from traditional public schools to charter schools, leaving higher-performing students at traditional schools.
  • The larger portion of the impact was due to direct competitive effects. In other words, the presence of public charter schools encouraged TPS to make improvements for remaining students that lead to increases in student performance.

Using student-level North Carolina panel data from 1997 to 2005, the study is innovative because it focuses on gaps in grades between charter schools and TPS in North Carolina. Oftentimes, a charter school will open with a single grade level and expand their grade range in subsequent years. Jinnai uses this gap to tease out the direct impact charter schools have on TPS students in overlapping grades and indirect impact on non-overlapping grades. Previous research estimated the impact of charter schools on TPS for all grade levels, regardless of whether charter schools served students in all grade levels.

Jinnai shows that the introduction of charter schools generates a positive and significant direct impact on student achievement: an increase of 0.033 standard deviations in math and 0.017 in reading for neighboring TPS students. While these gains are small in comparison to the impact of experienced teachers or per-pupil expenditure on achievement, they are larger and more accurate than previous competitive-effects studies due to the distinction between direct and indirect impact.

Public charter schools in North Carolina attract lower performing students, but they are showing academic success. In 2010, 77 percent of public charter schools made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). In contrast, 57 percent of traditional public schools made AYP in 2010. With North Carolina lifting their 100-charter school cap in 2011 and receiving 70 new charter applications for the 2014-2015 school year, there is potential for significant learning gains for all public school students.

Jinnai’s new paper debunks the myth that the success of public charter schools comes at the detriment of neighboring traditional public schools. In North Carolina, public charter schools contribute to education reform by serving low-performing students and encouraging high standards of performance for nearby traditional public schools.

Boston Collegiate