Since the 1980s, education reform efforts have sought to shake up the stodgy, traditional landscape of public schooling in the United States. One way to do that is to start schools from scratch that can introduce innovative new education models and push traditional systems to improve. A new report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York takes a closer look at new public schools that have opened in the last three decades to identify whether that aim was achieved and define any patterns of change.
The authors select 1990 to 2020 as their timeframe, an appropriate choice given that the first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991 and that the charter movement has provided the most obvious source of competitive pressure on the district establishment. Their analysis considers only district and charter public schools, both old (opened prior to 1990) and new (opened in 1990 or after). Every school they include is encompassed within one of those two categories. Certain school models, such as those in correctional facilities, are expressly excluded in the methodology described. However, while the methodology makes no mention of virtual schools either way, an interactive map of schools included in the analysis lists no virtual schools in any stat. Thus, it seems safe to assume the analysis considers only brick-and-mortar schools.
Of the 93,502 public elementary and secondary schools operating across the country in the 2019–20 school year, the authors find that 31,912 (34 percent) did not exist thirty years earlier. Of those, 7,079—more than one in five—were charter schools. All together, these new public schools are attended by nearly 17 million students, or one-third of all public school students in the country.
As to patterns, the analysts identify three waves of new school creation. The first, in the 1990s, reflects overall increases in student enrollment occurring at the time. Just 4 percent of those created in this wave were charters, as the movement was just getting started. That means most of these “first wave” schools were district schools created in high-growth states and suburbs. The second wave, in the early 2000s, shows new schools being established at a higher rate than school enrollment trends and a boost in the percentage of charters (24 percent) among them. The third, in the 2010s, shows a declining number of new schools being created, even though student enrollment was still increasing, albeit modestly. Charter schools made up 40 percent of schools created in this wave. Nevada, Arizona, and Florida led the nation in new school formation, while fifteen states (including Ohio) saw an overall decrease in total schools by 2020, despite schools continuing to be created. New schools of both types are more likely to enroll Black and Hispanic students than their older counterparts, while White students are more likely to attend older schools. These trends have accelerated in the last decade and are attributed to charter school proliferation in more and more states, which tracks with other data.
The authors surmise that all or nearly all of the new charter school creation over the period was a result of “systems change”—deliberate efforts to build something new and/or operationalize education reform principles—due to the intentionality required and the funding and regulatory hurdles that must be overcome to launch a charter. By contrast, they believe that at least one-third of new district schools created during this period were a response to enrollment pressures—either growth that required additional buildings or geographic shifts that required closing an old building in a declining location and building a new facility in a burgeoning one. And while an additional third of new district schools do appear to have been created for some reason other than enrollment concerns, the authors won’t go so far as to label that other reason as systems change. Seems wise, since systems change and districts are not typically synonymous terms.
New York City, where Carnegie is based, saw the largest number of new schools created (1,050) compared to all other districts/county systems. By 2020, 57 percent of all public schools in the city were new, serving 45 percent of the student body. The report includes a case study of the Big Apple, finding that a majority of public high school students there attended new schools in 2020 while a majority of elementary students attended schools opened prior to 1990. The average new school enrolled 452 students, compared with 744 students enrolled in older schools. For high schools, the difference was even more pronounced: 495 high schoolers attended the average new school versus 1,416 at older New York high schools. The report aligns this finding with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to prioritize small schools. The peak of new school creation in the city occurred during the Bloomberg administration (2002–2013) and the majority in that period were new district schools. However, between 2016 and 2020, 71 percent of new schools created in the city were charter schools.
What does all this mean? Carnegie folks are very bullish on the prospect that most of these new schools reflect efforts at innovation and improved opportunities for students, as per research findings on NYC’s small school project. But traditional schools are traditional for a reason, and it is highly likely that, building-wise, districts have created more new facilities to house the same old programs than to experiment with new teaching and learning models. Luckily, we know from research that competitive pressure almost always improves district school outcomes. So to the extent that charters are growing and competition from voucher and ESA programs is increasing—and as the seismic changes from pandemic-era innovations settle into the mainstream—perhaps that bullishness is warranted.
SOURCE: Carnegie Insights, “New Schools in the United States: A Quantitative Review of Public Schools Opened During the Last Three Decades,” Carnegie Corporation of New York (May 2023).