Characterizing Competitive Responses
Having established that districts acknowledge charter schools and are aware that they compete with them for students, we then attempted to characterize public school districts’ responses to the competition. Our characterization of responses is informed by basic economic assumptions underlying competitive markets and the premise that functional markets will lead to a rising tide of achievement for all students. Competition between charter schools and traditional public schools for students may induce a constructive reaction, an obstructive reaction, or no response.
In a constructive response to competition, school faculty and administrators may implement reforms that use resources more efficiently, improve the overall quality of education within the traditional public schools, and increase responsiveness to student needs. If the efforts are successful, then the quality of traditional public schools will increase relative to what it would have been in the absence of competition from charter schools.
In an obstructive response to increased competition for scarce public resources, public school officials may attempt to block the growth of charter schools by limiting access to buildings and information, adding burdensome bureaucratic requirements, or supporting legislation that would hinder the development of such schools.
Of course, school and district officials may choose not to respond at all if, for example, the threat or the school’s or district’s perception of a competitive threat to their resources is negligible. Similarly, schools and districts, when faced with competition, might make public statements about how they need to change but never translate these statements into action. We consider the symbolic responses described by Frederick Hess in Revolution at the Margins (2002) as effectively falling into this third category of offering no response. It is for this reason that we verified that any policy or practice change referenced in a public statement by a district official and reported in the media actually did occur.
Contrary to the largely symbolic reactions to competition evident when the school choice movement was just beginning, we find evidence of significant changes in district policy and practice. The most common positive response, found in 8 of the 12 locations, is district cooperation or collaboration with charter schools. We were even able to find evidence of this constructive response in Atlanta Public Schools, a district previously relatively unwelcoming to charter schools: in late October 2012, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a collaboration grant for teachers and administrators at B.E.S.T Academy Middle School, a district-run school in Atlanta, to participate in training conducted by the KIPP Metro Atlanta. The next three most-common constructive responses, found in seven locations, are partnerships with successful nonprofit CMOs or for-profit charter school operators, education management organizations (EM0s), to operate schools; the replication of successful charter school practices; and an increase in active efforts to market district offerings to students and families (see Table 1).
Changing Practices (Table 1)
Competition from charter schools is prompting responses from public
school districts that may improve the quality of education
Region and Replicate Collaborate Support Market to Expand/
District charter with pilot, students/ improve
practices charters innovation families schools/
Boston * * *
Harlem * *
Newark * * *
Detroit * * *
Indianapolis * * *
New Orleans * * * *
Washington, * * *
Denver * * * *
Los Angeles * * *
Phoenix * * *
Region and Partner Improve Deny Create Freeze or
District with efficiency applications/ legal delay
CMOS or restrict obstacles payments
EMOs renewal to
Chicago * *
Indianapolis X X X
New Orleans *
Denver * *
Los Angeles * X
Region and Block Withhold Use reqs. to
District access to information restrict
Detroit X X
Los Angeles X X