Nearby charter schools boost public school performance, researcher says

Published: Thursday, March 14 2013 8:17 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Public schools may see a jump in math, science and language arts test scores — if a charter school is in the same neighborhood. 

Mike Martineau, with the department of economics at the University of Utah, found that public schools within 10 miles of one or more charter schools saw a boost in their test scores. Martineau presented his findings to the Utah State Charter School Board during its Thursday board meeting. The full research will be published by the U. this summer.

Schools are driven to keep enrollment numbers high because a loss in students means lost revenue, Martineau said. The competition generated by the presence of charter schools — which translates to resources being spread more thinly — plays a role in incentivizing public schools to improve their performance., he said.

Martineau used data from Utah test scores from the 2005-06 school year through the 2010-11 school year. The study controlled for district, white, Hispanic and total enrollment, free and/or reduced lunch eligibility and student-to-faculty ratio, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Rather than being a comparative analysis between public and charter schools, it compares public schools with neighboring charter schools to public schools without.

The more significant findings from this study showed a positive correlation when charter schools and public schools are close to each other. For example:

• School districts with 5 percent of their students attending charter schools showed a 1.2 percent gain in math proficiency, as compared to schools without charter school competition, within two years of the charter school existing.

• Traditional public schools with at least four charter schools within five miles showed a 1.8 percent increase in statewide language arts proficiency within the same year.

• School districts with at least 6 percent of students attending charter schools showed a 2.0 percent increase in science proficiency within two years of the charter school existing. 

Martineau said overall, the data shows the presence of charter schools is a benefit to traditional public schools.

“This really means that charter schools in Utah can primarily serve a purpose of offering options, whatever the mission may be for that particular charter school, for students to attend them,” Martineau said. “At the same time, it simultaneously provides meaningful incentives for traditional public schools to increase achievement.”

This study takes into account the economic theory of people voting with their feet, in the sense that they will go to the school that is conveniently located and offers the best resources. This will have a competitive effect on traditional public and charter schools, as both will be motivated to innovate and provide high-quality education.

“A school that fails to provide higher achievement will eventually lose enrollment if parents are given an option nearby,” Martineau said.

The charter school board seemed impressed with the data, and mentioned the possibility of presenting it to the Utah State Board of Education.

Tim Beagley, who is a member of the Utah State Charter School Board, said he was struck by the largely positive data generated by the research and its implications for charter schools.

“Whatever it is we’re doing, we’re not really hurting anybody that much,” Beagley said.

The improvement in school performance should not be a surprise, said Salt Lake School District Superintendent McKell Withers. This is because the growth in charter schools in Utah occurred during the same time period when there has been an emphasis in paying more attention to language arts, math and science in schools, and when both charter and public schools have different accountability models.

The best use of taxpayer funds, he said, would be for public and charter schools to improve together.

“We’ve said time and time again that school improvement is real for every school,” Withers said.

He said schools should work together so resources are used to benefit the public they serve, and so neither entity redoubles efforts.

The Salt Lake School District embraces choice, he said. In that district, more than 25 percent of the students do not attend the neighborhood schools. Because of this, the district has worked to provide families with options.

For instance, the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts has partnered with Highland High School to provide high quality performance art instruction and allow for interested students to take higher level classes or advanced placement classes. Students at Highland, conversely, are allowed to take classes at SLSPA.

When considering charter schools, he cautions parents to make sure they choose a quality school. Charters will vary in their quality, just as neighborhood schools will.

“It would make sense to take a deep breath and invest in more successful charter schools,” Withers said.

E-mail: wevans@deseretnews.com

Twitter: whitevs7

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