Competition Spurs Public School Improvements

Published February 1, 1998

A little competition goes a long way. That’s what parents across the country are discovering as a variety of school choice experiments begin to challenge the long-standing inertia of a monopolistic and hitherto unresponsive public school system. Although they are often limited in scope and hobbled by restrictions, these choice experiments are spurring changes and improvements in the nation’s public schools, benefitting all children–not just those whose parents get to exercise choice.

While market competition drives the improvement of goods and services in most sectors of the U.S. economy, until recently the public education system was not among them. Indeed, many educators contend that public schools do not operate like businesses and that education cannot be subjected to the forces of the marketplace. Giving choice to a few parents will have no impact on the public schools, say school choice opponents, except for “siphoning” off scarce tax dollars.

Choice supporters, by contrast, contend that increasing the educational options available to parents will improve public schools, which would no longer take their students for granted and would have to compete for them.

Reports from the field suggest that choice supporters are closer to the mark, and that choice opponents have seriously underestimated the power of marketplace competition to jar complacent administrators faced with erosion of their customer base.

Choice Winds Blow from New York to California

According to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, last year’s rise in the city’s reading scores was a result, at least in part, of competition between public and private schools. Last year, the School Choice Scholarships Foundation, a private voucher program, allowed Giuliani to accept Roman Catholic Cardinal John O’Connor’s 1996 offer to educate some of the students from the city’s worst public schools. (See “New Private Voucher Program to Serve 1,000 NY City Children,” School Reform News, March 1997.)

“I think the public school system is being challenged to do better,” Giuliani told the New York Times. “That is exactly what we should do with it, not accept it the way it is.”

After one-fifth of the student body at Giffen Memorial elementary school in Albany, New York, accepted private scholarships from philanthropist Virginia Gilder, the Giffen school board replaced the principal, brought in nine new teachers, added two assistant principals, and made an extra $125,000 available for books, equipment, and teacher training. (See “Scholarships Prompt Parents to Abandon Failing School,” School Reform News, October 1997.)

In 1995, another private voucher program–Putting Children First, in San Antonio, Texas–spurred officials to develop a publicly funded pilot program that gives scholarships to low-income students in failing public schools. The students use the scholarships to transfer to other public schools.

Even competition within the public school system has spurred changes. Two years after the Massachusetts state legislature approved a charter school law, the Boston school district opened five “pilot schools” where waivers of union contract provisions and district policies are permitted. In California, the Los Angeles Unified School District revised its purchasing system after seeing that a Los Angeles charter school could purchase computers much faster and less expensively than it could.

In Mesa, Arizona, parents were treated to a full-page ad in the local newspaper, extolling the benefits of attending area public schools rather than the charter schools. In Flagstaff, the school board opened a “school within a school” aimed at stemming the loss of students to charter schools.

Some public school administrators, like those at Dunham and Santa Rosa high schools in Sonoma County, California, have taken a proactive approach to the new marketplace for education. They are using newspaper and radio advertising to bring more students to their schools. While enrollments were once declining at Dunham, there is now a waiting list to enter most grades, and 70 percent of the school’s students transfer in from other districts. At Santa Rosa, transfer students make up a third of the student body.

“You have to create a market for your product,” Dunham Superintendent Don Ryckman told the Press Democrat.

Although only one in 24, or less than 5 percent, of the 17,000 students in Michigan’s Lansing School District chose to attend out-of-district schools and charter schools in the 1996-97 school year, that was enough to get the administration’s attention. In response, the district established tougher goals for test scores and dropout rates; offered new options, such as all-day kindergarten, to district residents; and launched an advertising campaign to promote the changes.

“The exercise of choice options by about 700 students has generated better programs for the over 17,000 who remain in the traditional schools,” conclude the authors of a recent Mackinac Center study on tuition tax credits. “A restaurant need not lose all of its customers before the chef gets the message,” they note.

“Wake-up Call” in Massachusetts

Do the changes bring students back? A 1997 study of the Massachusetts interdistrict public school choice program by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that they do–and that doing nothing makes things worse. By improving policies and programs to win back students, the Massachusetts districts most severely affected by student transfers reduced their losses significantly in subsequent years. But districts that lost relatively few students, and thus did not feel compelled to respond to the choice program, subsequently experienced somewhat higher student losses. (See “Choice ‘Wake-up Call’ Spurs Public School Improvements in Massachusetts,” School Reform News, June 1997.)

“I think the fact that a lot of kids left and continue to stay out had the effect of being an academic wake-up call to our faculty,” a staff member commented to the study’s authors, David J. Armor and Brett M. Peiser of George Mason University. “Because no longer could they automatically count on having a student go through the schools just because they lived in town.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].