Charter schools create competition that forces regular public schools to step up their game
New York City has 32 community school districts. The availability of free facilities in some of them has spurred rapid charter-school growth, while in others, the absence of such facilities has thwarted it. As a result, charter enrollment varies widely, from nearly half of students in the Central Harlem district to none at all in other districts.
This divergence, much like Germany's division after World War II into a free-market West and a Communist East, has created perfect conditions for a real-world experiment. We can examine the 16 districts where charter school enrollment is highest (charter-rich districts) and the 16 districts where it is lowest (charter-light districts) and see how their relative rankings, based on their results on statewide English and math proficiency exams, changed between 2006 and 2014.
Of the 16 charter-rich districts, 11 rose in the rankings. And of the eight among those 16 with the highest charter enrollment, all rose save one. The district that jumped furthest, rocketing up 11 spots between 2006 and 2014, was District 5 in Central Harlem, which has the city's highest charter-school enrollment (43%).
And what about the 16 charter-light districts? Thirteen fell in the rankings, and not one rose. For example, District 12 in the Bronx, which in 2006 ranked higher than Central Harlem, now ranks 13 spots lower. District 29 in Queens, which in 2006 ranked 15 spots higher than Central Harlem and has fewer poor students, now ranks lower.
Average charter-school enrollment was 20% for those districts that rose in the rankings and 6% in those districts that fell.
Charter-school gains do not come at the expense of district schools. Actually, the opposite is true. The district schools in charter-rich districts improved in response to the competition. As judged solely by district-school results, 11 of the 16 charter-rich districts moved up in the rankings.