Charter Competition Has Some Healthy Benefits for Denver, Still Room for More

How many of my posts here have been inspired by a story at Education Next? Someone with too much time on their hands and go find the exact answer. But you’ll have to add this one to the count, because I think readers would find interesting a new piece by Marc Holley & Co., “Competition with Charters Motivates Districts.”

It’s a creative project in which the authors look for evidence from 12 different urban school districts across the U.S. — geographically disbursed in four different regions — to see to what extent the growth of public charter sectors might actually “prompt low-performing districts to improve their practice.” They looked at more than 8,000 media reports since 2007 to determine whether the dozen districts responded constructively and/or obstructively. They conclude:

As the charter sector continues to expand, some of its competitors appear to be changing strategy. Where school districts once responded with indifference, symbolic gestures, or open hostility, we are starting to see a broadening of responses, perhaps fueled by acceptance that the charter sector will continue to thrive, or by knowledge that many charters are providing examples of ways to raise academic achievement.

Traditional public schools are aware of the threats posed by alternative education providers, but they are analyzing the moves made by competitors and demonstrating that they may have the savvy to reflect, replicate, experiment, and enter into partnerships with school choice providers. This evidence suggests that while bureaucratic change may often be slow, it may be a mistake to underestimate the capacity of these bureaucratic institutions to reform, adapt, and adjust in light of changing environments.

Are they correct? Well, of course, there’s a definite limit to what a study like this one can tell us. Yet the comparison among districts certainly has some merit. Holley & Co. break down seven different constructive responses (ways in which districts may embrace change and seek to improve) and six different obstructive responses (ways in which districts may resist change).

Using this metric, Denver comes out looking relatively good — and that certainly seems right. DPS is one of about half of the 12 districts to exhibit no obstructive responses, while only New Orleans registered more constructive responses. Kudos to Colorado’s 2nd largest district, but there are two areas DPS could undertake to jump to the top of the list: “Expand/improve school offerings” and “Improve efficiency.”

What’s also left out of this type of study is a clear sense of just how successful those responses have been. Taken altogether, I guess that’s something to keep an eye on in the near future. Public school choice in Colorado is providing some benefits from competition. Our state has come a long way in the last 20 years, but we still have a long ways to go.