UH Study Explores Charter Schools' Impact on Public Learning Institutions

Charter schools often are the subject of debate among educators, parents and community leaders. Still, the number of these institutions continues to rise, and many of them are opening in areas already occupied by public schools. Does the presence of these non-traditional schools affect their public counterparts?

According to a recent University of Houston study, the answer is "yes."

UH economics professor Scott Imberman recently analyzed the short-term impact on public schools when charter schools open within the same community. His findings are presented in the paper "The Effect of Charter Schools on Achievement and Behavior of Public School Students." It will be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Public Economics.

Imberman reviewed academic and disciplinary records from institutions within a large urban school district. Data spanned from 1993 to 2004. Through statistical analysis, he found that math and language test scores dropped in public elementary schools after neighboring charter schools opened.

Funding might be a factor behind this trend, he said. Public schools can lose funding if their enrollments dip. If more students begin attending charters, then public institutions may be challenged by reduced budgets and less instructional resources.

At public middle and high schools, Imberman noticed fewer disciplinary infractions following the arrival of nearby charter schools. He said one possible explanation is that charter schools often attract students with more disciplinary problems. Students at public schools may have been positively influenced by the departure of peers with behavioral issues, he noted.

 "This study can assist school districts adjust to this relatively new educational landscape in which charter schools are coexisting with public schools," Imberman said. "As charters continue to gain more students, public schools must address possible reductions in enrollment and budgets. They can do this in a variety of ways including effectively adjusting their resources to prepare for possible funding shortfalls and continuing to provide quality instruction for their students."

Charter schools provide students with innovative educational experiences and are freed from rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools. As a result of such liberties, these schools are held accountable for specific academic results. Curriculum is designed by each school's founders and may be specialized.  According to the Center for Educational Reform, 5,000 charter schools serve 1.5 million students in the Unites States.

Imberman's previous studies have focused on issues in contemporary education. Recent papers include "Achievement and Behavior in Charter Schools: Drawing a More Complete Picture" to be published in an upcoming edition of the Review of Economics and Statistics and "Dressed for Success? The Effect of School Uniforms on Student Achievement and Behavior" (co-authored with Elizabetta Gentile). Imberman recently was named a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow for research on how English-speaking students are affected by sharing classrooms with students who have limited English proficiency.