Proponents of market-based education
Proponents of market-based education reform often argue that introducing charter schools and other school choice policies creates a competitive dynamic that will prompt low-performing districts to improve their practice. Rather than simply providing an alternative to neighborhood public schools for a handful of students, the theory says, school choice programs actually benefit students remaining in their neighborhood schools, too. Competition motivates districts to respond to the loss of students and the revenues students bring, producing a rising tide that, as the common metaphor suggests, lifts all boats.
But in order for this to happen, districts must first recognize the need to compete for students and then make efforts to attract those students, who now have the chance to go elsewhere. Since 2007, enrollment in charter schools has jumped from 1.3 million to 2 million students, an increase of 59 percent. The school choice movement is gaining momentum, but are districts responding to the competition? In this study we investigate whether district officials in a position to influence policy and practice have begun to respond to competitive pressure from school choice in new ways. Specifically, we probe whether district officials in urban settings across the country believe they need to compete for students. If they do, what is the nature of their response?
A small number of studies and numerous media reports have attempted to capture the reactions of public school officials to these new threats to their enrollments and revenues. A few reports of obstructionist behavior by districts stand out and have been chronicled in these pages by Joe Williams (“Games Charter Opponents Play,” features, Winter 2007) and Nelson Smith (“Whose School Buildings Are They, Anyway?” features, Fall 2012). Yet our evidence suggests that the dynamics described in Williams’s report of guerilla turf wars may be evolving in many locations to reflect new political circumstances and the growing popularity of a burgeoning charter sector.
To explore the influence of school choice on district policy and practice, we scoured media sources for evidence of urban public-school districts’ responses to charter competition. Our express purpose was to catalog levels of competition awareness and types of responses by public school officials and their representatives. Our search retrieved more than 8,000 print and online media reports in the past five years (since the 2007 Williams article) from 12 urban locations in the United States. We then reviewed minutes from school board meetings, district web sites, and other district artifacts to verify if, in fact, the practices and policies described in media reports have occurred.
We selected cities according to specific criteria. We chose three urban districts with high percentages of minority and low-income students (at least 60 percent on both counts) in each region (Northeast, Midwest, South, West). In addition, districts in our sample needed to have a minimum of 6 percent of students in choice schools, the level Caroline Hoxby identified as a threshold above which districts could reasonably be expected to respond to competitive pressure (see “Rising Tide,” research, Winter 2001). Finally, we sought to include cities across the range of choice-school market shares within each geographic region, so long as they were above the 6 percent threshold (see Figure 1).
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Competition Awareness When the charter movement began in the early 1990s, few students were leaving the traditional system, and district officials were not particularly threatened with the loss of revenues as students and their funding went to other providers. That reality has changed. But before they can respond in meaningful ways, district officials need to recognize the new competitive market. Our first task was to find evidence that district officials recognize incentives associated with competing for students and meeting parental demand. We find at least one piece of evidence of competition awareness in all 12 cities, indicating that traditional public-school leaders generally acknowledge students’ alternative schooling option of attending a charter school.
In Denver, for example, school board members Jeanne Kaplan and Andrea Merida provided evidence of their awareness of competition among education providers in a 2011 guest commentary in the
Denver Post. The board members raised the following point:
Before adding more charters or other new schools, the district
should wait for the data to come in to justify doing so … We
challenge Superintendent Tom Boasberg and our board to commit
to a level playing field so neighborhood schools receive the
same resources as charter and innovation schools.
In New York City, Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education until January 2011, was keenly aware of competition and openly welcomed charter schools, even if it meant publicly criticizing the public schools he oversaw. In a May 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Klein wrote,
A full-scale transition from a government-run monopoly to a
competitive marketplace won’t happen quickly, but that’s no
reason not to begin introducing more competition … We pursued
that goal in New York City by opening more than 100 charter
schools in high-poverty communities. Almost 80,000 families
chose these new schools–though we had space for only 40,000;
the rest are on waiting lists. Traditional schools and the
unions have been screaming bloody murder, which is a good sign:
It means that the monopolists are beginning to feel the effects
Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent John Deasy has expressed his awareness of competition from schools of choice. Although not all of his subsequent actions conform to his claim that he is seeking healthy competition, this quotation makes it clear that he is aware of a competitive dynamic. Speaking at the Charter School Leadership Symposium in Los Angeles in 2010, he said,
Charter schools are a viable and necessary part of education.
We are now in a multiple-provider world. … We’re in a moment
of unhealthy competition, and I’m looking forward to healthy
These are just a few examples of media reports that demonstrate cognizance of the threats posed by alternative providers, but awareness is just the first step. We next sought to figure out if knowledge actually led to action.