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Heating Up Competition: Strategies for District Innovation

K12 education is no stranger to adversity. Years of declining budgets make it difficult to adequately serve students. Divisive politics muddy the waters on accountability. Antagonistic community groups consistently stand in the way of progress.

Now a new report out of New Orleans suggests that schools in several communities face another adversary: themselves.

In spirit, the national school-choice movement seeks to give students who attend underperforming schools access to a higher-quality alternative education, whether through vouchers to local charter schools or open enrollment at neighboring public schools, among other options.

The goal: incentivize struggling schools to step up their game — or risk losing students.

But the study, from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, suggests schools in the Big Easy spend more to fend off the competition than to improve academics.

This story in the Washington Post points out that of the 30 schools surveyed for the study, 10 tried to attract students by putting a charge into struggling academic programs. That’s compared with 25 schools that ramped up marketing for existing programs, with few if any academic improvements. Extracurricular activities were used as incentives. In some instances, public schools recruited individual students.

Huriya Jabbar, the report’s author and an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, asserts that such tactics underscore a fundamental weakness in the school-choice movement, and hints that more oversight may be necessary.

“If schools, like firms in other markets, can choose to compete in ways other than improving their products — even in ways that violate district policies — a more significant role for a central authority may be warranted,” Jabbar writes in her report. “Without some process to manage the current responses to competition like student selection and exclusion, New Orleans could end up with a less equitable school system.”

Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has become a leader in school choice. In 2014, NPR estimated that as many as 9 in 10 students attended privately run charter schools there. But it’s hardly the only place in the country in which public schools have been forced, for one reason or another, to confront the specter of increased competition. In Florida, pending legislation would allow parents to send their children to any public school in the state that has space. A report in the Tampa Bay Tribune notes that at least 20 states have laws that require public schools to accept students from other school districts.

What’s your take on school choice? Does it drive improvements or create disparities? Have you considered surveying your school community to find out what it thinks? Something to think about.