New Orleans Research Shows Competition Does Not Necessarily Improve Schools

For years research from the privately funded Cowen Institute for Education Initiatives at Tulane University bragged about the transformation of the schools in New Orleans following the widespread devastation of Hurricane Katrina, when the schools were taken over by the state and charterized.  Then last October the Cowen Institute was forced to retract its latest report with an apology for flawed methodology.  Since that time the tune has changed a bit from Tulane.

In recent months a new Tulane-led collaborative, The Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, has been publishing probing research about how the city’s widespread school choice is actually working.  The first report showed that parents have not been choosing schools for the reasons usually predicted by proponents of the education marketplace; instead parents are looking for proximity to home, work and childcare or for extras like successful extracurricular and after school programs. A new report addresses the question: How Do School Leaders Respond to Competition?

In the new report, Huriya Jabbar, a professor from the University of Texas, explains that she chose not to focus merely on test score outcomes but instead sought to explore how school leaders respond when a school district has been transformed into a competitive marketplace.  She believes New Orleans is the best laboratory in the United States for conducting such research: “The New Orleans school-choice market, consisting overwhelmingly of open-enrollment charter schools is arguably the most competitive district ever created in the United States.”  Why conduct extensive interviews with school leaders instead of looking at test scores? “Focusing on schools’ responses to competition rather than outcomes can help policy-makers understand whether improving education is the automatic response to competition in a school-choice environment, or whether schools, like competitors in other markets, have a range of strategies they employ in order to survive.”

Jabbar and her colleagues studied the responses of 30 schools.  Twenty-five schools increased marketing and advertising.  Seventeen sought to fill particular academic or extracurricular niches  Ten made concerted efforts to improve academics or instruction. Another 10 changed their operations to cut costs through partnerships or opening additional schools.  Ten found ways to raise test scores by selecting students or excluding other students.  Seven did market research to guide advertising.  Leaders in 29 of the 30 schools were very much aware they were engaged in competition for students and for ratings.  School leaders said things like: “Every kid is money.” “Enrollment runs the budget; the budget runs the enrollment.” “We all want our [student] numbers up so we can get more money, more funding.”

Jabbar explores how competition favors particular strategies. “The combined pressure to enroll a greater number of students and raise test scores to meet state targets seems to have created perverse incentives, encouraging the practice of screening and selecting students.”

The conclusion?  Unfettered markets do not always operate in the best interests of the students or the community.  Government oversight is needed: “Some advocates of school choice suggest there is little role for districts other than approving charters and closing low-performing schools.  But, 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. Without more efforts to manage the current responses to competition like student selection and exclusion, New Orleans could end up with a less equitable school system.”

Even the increased use by New Orleans’ charters of the OneApp central application system cannot overcome the perverse incentives created by competition: “Since the data in this study were collected, the RSD (Recovery School District) has made several efforts to address these issues, such as closer oversight of mid-year transfers, and has increased the number of schools participating in the OneApp.  However, it is difficult to prevent the strategic use of open seats and school capacity or the use of strategic marketing strategies.”

The last sentence of the policy brief’s conclusion stopped me cold: “And since competition alone does not seem to generate many efforts to improve instruction, districts might provide supports to struggling schools to help them build capacity and focus on academic improvement.”  Competition was supposed to be the answer in school reform, wasn’t it?  If competition doesn’t generate school improvement as promised, why close the pubic schools and create a privatized education marketplace?  As Jabbar suggests, “districts might provide supports to struggling schools to help them build capacity and focus on academic improvement,” and they could do it in the neighborhood public schools.  Research in New Orleans and also in Chicago has suggested parents very often prefer proximity to home, school, and childcare.