Charters v. Private Schools: Urban and Suburban Differences

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Cato has new research out from Richard Buddin, examining where charter schools draw their students from. Adam Schaeffer offers a summary, emphasizing the dangers of charter schools: “On average, charter schools may marginally improve the public education system, but in the process they are wreaking havoc on private education.”

I agree with the basic premise: charters don’t fix the underlying injustice of government monopolizing education by providing “free” (i.e. free at the point of service, paid for by taxpayers) education, driving everyone else out of the education sector. As Jay and I have argued before, vouchers make the world safe for charters; that implies you can view charters as a response by the government to protect its monopoly against the disruptive threat of voucher legislation.

But what interests me more are the urban/suburban and elementary/secondary breakdowns of these data. It appears that charters are only substantially cutting into private schools in “highly urban” areas. In the suburbs, the charter school option is framed much more in terms of boutique specialty alternatives (schools for the arts, classical education, etc.) rather than “your school sucks, here’s one that works.” If you’d asked me, I would have guessed that would also cut heavily into the private school market – it would appeal to parents of high means who are looking for something out of the ordinary for their children, and that demographic would be most likely to already be in private schools. Yet the data show otherwise; apparently the families choosing boutique suburban charters weren’t much impressed with their private school options. And what’s up with this weird distribution on the elementary/secondary axis? Apparently public middle schools really stink in urban/suburban border areas.


12 Responses to Charters v. Private Schools: Urban and Suburban Differences

  1. Just a mom says:

    “Catholic schools seem particularly vulnerable [to the impact of charter schools], especially for elementary students in large metropolitan areas.” Education philanthropy could have such a big impact here. Urban school reform needs faith-based schools. Public charters can supply uniforms, longer hours, and bright young teachers, but they cannot offer the moral foundation that Catholic schools provide.

  2. Matthew Ladner says:

    I addressed this subject in a Journal of Catholic Education article a few years ago:

    Charter schools will kill off inner city Catholic and other private schools in Detroit, but private education has managed to survive the creation of 500+ charter schools and counting in Arizona in large part due to our tax credit programs.

    Choice advocates need to balance charter school laws with robust private choice programs.

  3. […] here: Charters v. Private Schools: Urban and Suburban Differences archives, cato, children, journal, log-nbspout, research reports, university, […]

  4. Mike G says:

    Ah, framing.

    1. Occam would have put out this study: “Charters pull 90% of their customers from public schools.”

    Cato: “10% of charter kids come from privates. OMG!”

    My question:

    What % of kids would not trigger your cry of “wreaking havoc”?

    2. Moreover, here’s the Big Picture.

    9% of American kids attend private schools, 3% to charters, 88% other public.

    Therefore: private school parents turn out to be equally likely to choose charters as public school parents.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Ah, but the devil’s in the details. Charter schools are disproportionately urban and disproportionately elementary schools. In that sector, it’s not 10% but 30%. The urban private elementary schools that are already shutting down in droves or converting to charter school status themselves (thus sacrificing their autonomy) won’t be comforted by the fact that their suburban counterparts aren’t threatened.

  5. […] In response to Cato’s new piece, Forster is especially intrigued with the apparent finding that “the families choosing boutique suburban charters weren’t much impressed with their private … […]

  6. Joe in LA says:

    I thought the goal was to give parents choice. That some choose to go away form privates schools IS THEIR CHOICE. Is fairness and choice your goal or destroying public schools your goal?

    Greg. You did not answer the question. What % WOULD NOT have you draw the conclusion of havoc wreacking?

    • Greg Forster says:

      All I ask is that the choices get equal treatment. If one school is subsidized with thousands of taxpayer dollars per year for each student, then the other should be, too. Then it’s a fair choice. As it is, it’s about as unfair as you can get.

      As for the question, I didn’t answer it because it wasn’t directed to me. I didn’t use the phrase “wreaking havoc” and am not interested in defending it. If Adam wants to use inflammatory language he’s perfectly capable of fighting his own battles.

      • allen says:

        Schaffer’s wrong about one thing.

        Charters won’t marginally improve public, i.e. district, education. Charters will improve it vastly in the only way a monopoly can be improved, by ending it.

        Oh, and Joe in LA, what’s wrong with destroying public schools as a goal? If there’s some moral imperitive to force parents to do, and the public to pay, for what history shows repeatedly parents can’t be stopped from doing where it’s illegal I’d sure like to hear it.

        As a socialist institution, and thus inevitably a monopoly, public education displays all the baleful characteristics of every other socialist institution. Considering whether to end it, rather then going through the tedious, and pointless, exercise of trying to mend it, seems like a perfectly legitimate policy goal to me all feverish, psychiatric diagnosis not withstanding.

        Charters, as I’ve pointed out before on this site, play a worthwhile role in the ending of public education.

        First, they undercut the long-held notion that the only way to do public education is via the American institution of the school district. But equally important charters help return to parents the power taken from them by the institution of public education – choice.

        Between the introduction of an institution of public education commensurate with the notion of parental authority and the undercutting of the authority of the local public education franchise the door opens to more substantive changes in public education including the possibility of ending it.

      • Mike G says:

        By the way, Greg, I will grant you that charters sometimes “free ride” off the voucher supporters.

        That is, you guys build a case for choice, and sometimes charter get thru as “choice lite.” I’m sure that’s annoying.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Mike G,

        Actually, in my chapter in Freedom and School Choice in American Education, I urged voucher supporters to embrace this dynamic as beneficial rather than resent it. You see, charters need vouchers as much as vouchers need charters (politically). Charters don’t get passed unless vouchers are a credible threat. And vouchers cease to be a credible threat if they’re not achieving victories. So there’s a boom and bust cycle for vouchers.

  7. Adam Schaeffer says:

    Thanks to Greg for the thoughtful discussion, and to Greg and Matt for pointing out this issue and solution in their earlier paper.

    As for the characterization of this impact, if you don’t call the decimation or near-elimination of Catholic school systems from major cities across the country (smaller private schools and networks are harder to notice) as “wreaking havoc,” well, then I’m not sure what to say.

    Sometimes the hard, simple truth is quite inflammatory.

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