Myth 5: Traditional Public Schools will be Forced to shut down Because they can’t Compete with Open Enrollment Charter Schools

By Dr. Mavuto Kalulu

When a charter school opens in the vicinity of a traditional public school, some people fear that the decreased enrollment caused by students transferring will cause the traditional public schools to shut down. When a public school shuts down, children are assigned to other schools, which they and their parents may or may not like. This fear about charter schools is based on the assumption that traditional public schools cannot adjust to the competition by improving their standards.

Data from the Arkansas Department of Education show that in the 2015–16 school year, 18 out of 1,037 traditional public schools closed down. Two out of the 18 closed schools were in a district that did not have a single student transfer to a charter school. Nine of the 18 schools were in districts that saw less than 1 percent of their students transfer to open enrollment charter schools. Pulaski County School District had the highest percentage of students leaving for charter schools at 14 percent. The school district, however, closed only 2 out of its 38 traditional public schools. The reason for the closure was the separation of the Jacksonville School District from the Pulaski County School District, which meant consolidation of some schools.

No evidence shows that charter schools in Arkansas are causing public schools to close down. Traditional public schools are able to adjust and offer an alternative to open enrollment charter schools. Rather than harming traditional public schools, open enrollment charter schools are helping traditional public schools to improve students’ performance.

An empirical evaluation of charter schools in Arkansas by Ritter and others (2016) shows that open enrollment charter school students perform better than comparable students in traditional public schools in both math and literacy. While this outcome is a positive one for charter schools, it is not as gratifying if, in the process, open enrollment charter schools cause academic harm to students in traditional public schools. Some argue that open enrollment charter schools draw the best students from traditional public schools, leaving behind hard-to-teach students and leading to the loss of the positive peer influence from the good students. Others argue that the opposite is true: open enrollment charter schools mostly draw students who might not perform as well in a traditional public school setting and who might have a negative effect on their classmates. However, research shows that the entry of charter schools into the public school system is actually associated with improved performance for traditional public school students.

A study in Texas by Booker and others (2008) examined the effect of charter schools on student performance in traditional public schools. The researchers found higher test scores for traditional public school students when there was a greater percentage of students leaving traditional public schools for charter schools. Similarly, a forthcoming study by the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics examines how the entry of open enrollment charter schools affects the performance of school districts in Arkansas. The results show that traditional public schools that face higher levels of competition from open enrollment charter schools experience improved test scores.

The introduction of charter schools in Arkansas creates a win-win outcome benefiting both charter school and traditional public school students. An added advantage of improved traditional public school performance is that students enrolling in traditional public schools will not have to compromise on their academics to have the opportunity to engage in extracurricular activities, such as football, that may not be available in charter schools.

Healthy competition among schools should be embraced. It incentivizes schools to provide a better quality education and students enrolled in both open enrollment charter schools and traditional public schools benefit. Concerns about increasing competition are well-meant but data shows that we have more to gain than we have to lose.

Dr. Mavuto Kalulu is a Policy Analyst at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics. His work on education has been featured in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Jonesboro Sun, and the Log Cabin Democrat.