School Choice Prompts Positive Reactions, Motivation in Traditional Public Schools

Marc J. Holley,, 479-372-7595, University of Arkansas
Ashley Inman,, 707 332-1184,Education Next Communications Office

School Choice Prompts Positive Reactions, Motivation in Traditional Public Schools

Evidence shows constructive district reactions to presence of charter schools in urban districts

Charter school enrollment in urban areas has increased by 59 percent in the past 6 years, and their presence is inducing traditional public schools to respond, innovate, and look for improvement. Although some districts still try to forestall the spread of charter schools, authors of a new study find that the urban school districts they examined made significant changes in policy or practice in response to the presence of charter schools in their district, indicating that school districts are choosing to emphasize the strengths of their own public schools and benefit from school choice in their areas.

After reviewing 8,000 media reports from the past five years regarding 12 different urban areas, authors Marc J. Holley, Anna J. Egalite, and Martin F. Lueken identified 132 pieces of evidence of competition awareness and constructive or obstructive responses, an average of approximately 11 per city. The authors then assessed how districts responded to competition from charters. Each news story was coded according to the “types of responses by public school officials.” The article, “Competition with Charters Motivates Districts: New political circumstances, growing popularity,” will appear in the Fall 2013 issue of Education Next and is currently available on the web at

In Boston and New Orleans, the authors found evidence that traditional public schools were supportive and innovative in response to the introduction of charter schools to their district. For example, both districts collaborated with local charters, showed support for pilot and innovation schools (as did Denver), and expanded and improved their own school offerings. Even Atlanta, a district that was “previously relatively unwelcoming to charter schools” has showed willingness to collaborate with KIPP schools.

In urban areas in the Northeast, Midwest, South, and West where at least 6 percent of students attended choice schools, the authors found evidence of significant changes in the policies and practices of schools within districts where school choice had been introduced. The most common reaction to the presence of charter schools was one of “district cooperation or collaboration with charter schools.” Positive responses included partnerships with CMOs or for-profit school operators, replication of successful charter school practices, and increased efforts on the part of traditional schools to market their services to students and families.

According to the authors, “where school districts once responded with indifference, symbolic gestures, or open hostility,” they found “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.”

While there were some instances of negative reactions in specific districts, such as challenging or delaying charters’ access to unused school buildings in Los Angeles and the District of Columbia, the authors say those instances were visibly fewer than those of positive change.

The authors conclude, “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.”

About the Authors

Marc J. Holley is evaluation unit director at the Walton Family Foundation and research fellow in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, where Anna J. Egalite and Martin F. Lueken are doctoral academy fellows.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit:

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