Principals in Washington, D.C.’s public schools are taking on a new role this summer: neighborhood canvasser. They have been going door-to-door in an effort to retain and recruit students amid a growing charter and choice sector in the nation’s capital. As the Washington Post reported last week:
“The District’s traditional public school system is sending principals out to knock on doors in a campaign to sell itself to city families, an aggressive move to boost enrollment and maintain market share after years of ceding ground to charter schools.”
Charter schools now account for 44 percent of D.C. school enrollment, and, since 2004, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has provided nearly 6,000 scholarships to children from low-income families to attend private schools of choice. That’s well above the 6 percent threshold Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby identified as the percentage of students needed in choice schools to place sufficient competitive pressure on the traditional public system to generate a response from school leadership.
In cities such as D.C. with robust school choice options, public schools are beginning to recognize they no longer have the luxury of solid enrollment regardless of school performance. Traditional public schools now have to convince parents they’re a good fit for their children. As the Post’s Emma Brown wroted:
“Gone are the days when public schools could sit back and wait for students to show up on the first day of class. In this era of school choice, families have become consumers, and educators have become marketers as responsible for selling their academic offerings as they are for teaching and learning.”
It’s good schools increasingly must compete for students. Competition encourages schools to create safe learning environments that are desirable to parents and perform academically.
University of Arkansas researchers Marc J. Holley, Anna J. Egalite, and Martin F. Lueken tested this theory by investigating whether school district officials responded to competitive pressure from school choice, and whether they thought they needed to compete for students as a result. The authors found “evidence of significant changes in district policy and practice.” Notably, Lueken et. al found that “across all four regions [Northeast, Midwest, South, and West], districts have increased marketing efforts to recruit and compete for students.”
Not only does the research suggest school leaders themselves respond to competitive pressure, but that response appears to manifest itself in positive gains for students who remain in traditional public schools.
In Florida, researchers Cassandra Hart and David Figlio examined whether the test scores of students in public schools that risked losing students to private schools through the tax credit program improved relative to students in public schools that were less affected by the scholarship program. “We find that they do,” said Hart and Figlio, “and that this improvement occurs before any students have actually used a scholarship to switch schools. In other words, it occurs from the threat of competition alone.” Similar findings revealed that students in the Milwaukee public school system were “performing at somewhat higher levels as a result of competitive pressure from the school voucher program.”
Researchers Jay P. Greene and Marcus A. Winters examined the impact of the McKay scholarship program for children with special needs in Florida and found statistically significant increases in the test scores of students with disabilities who remained in the public system as more private schools entered the McKay program. The findings, Greene and Winters note, suggest “that schools were serving those students better when they faced more competition from the McKay program.… Vouchers do not drain public schools of their ability to serve disabled students; instead, schools are pushed to serve those students better.”
D.C.’s growing school choice marketplace is not unique. This fall New Orleans will become the country’s first all-charter and choice district. All children in the city will be attending a school chosen by their parents.
And shouldn’t that be the default position? Instead of reserving choice for those who can afford a nice home in an affluent district, every family should be able to choose educational options that match their children’s learning needs.
For their part, school leaders in every sector – traditional, charter, private – should respond just as D.C. principals have: Treat parents as the savvy education consumers they are, and convince them of the merits of a given school.