When school districts compete, students win

Competition with other education options is nothing new for Florida school districts, though some of the rhetoric surrounding new legislation might make it seem that way.

The Palm Beach Post recently covered the deliberations of its local school board. Members worried that with this year’s passage of HB 1, which expanded eligibility for Florida’s educational choice scholarship programs, they would find themselves competing with private schools for the first time, and that they needed to launch a new marketing campaign in response.

Superintendent Mike Burke announced an idea in the spring to market public schools to families weighing their options. The district launched a kindergarten registration campaign to get Palm Beach County’s youngest students in public school classrooms. Their thinking was that if students start in public school, they’re more likely to stay.

Among the first orders of business for the district’s new chief communications strategist will be expanding its marketing campaign to try to prove to parents considering education choice savings accounts that public schools are their best choice.

“I think we’re going to have to dedicate real resources to this beyond our website,” Burke said. “We’ve been competing with charter schools for 20 years. We’ve never competed with private schools.”

The reality is that Florida school districts have been competing with private schools, including those supported by state-backed scholarship programs, for more than two decades, as the district’s enrollment presentation shows.

Historical enrollment and expected enrollment for the 2023-24 school year at Palm Beach County Schools. The blue bar represents traditional, district-run schools, the orange bar represents charter school students and the grey bar represents the students who use publicly funded Family Empowerment Scholarships to attend private schools.

The available evidence suggests that, on average, this competition is good for students, including those who remain in district schools. Studies of the expansion of private school scholarship programs and the introduction of new charter schools have both tended to find small but measurable performance improvements in surrounding public schools.

Most of these studies were done by economists who framed their analysis in terms of competition. But it might not be competition per se driving these improvements. It could be that “fit” matters a lot in education. When students gain access to new options, all students become more likely to find schools that fit their needs. As a result, students on average wind up slightly better off, even if they remain in the same school they attended before.

This year’s new law has the potential to accelerate that virtuous cycle, in which students gain access to new options, public schools diversify their offerings, and everyone winds up better off.

Here’s how: The law broadens options for students, allowing them to use scholarships beyond private schools. More families can now use the scholarships to purchase a mix of education-related goods and services that meet their child’s needs, without enrolling full-time in any one school, public or private.

This option will start small. Most families are used to using the scholarship program primarily to pay tuition for full-time enrollment private schools. But it could grow in the coming years. If it does, it will heighten the competition all existing schools face, public and private. It would also create a new opportunity for school districts: They can design programs for students who use this option. Let them sign up for single courses, half-day programs, or one-day-a-week sessions.

These flexible options can help the district attract students who might otherwise leave for private schools or home education—and retain some revenue in the process. Last year, more than 180,000 students used these scholarships, and that number will likely continue growing.

While many people in public education recoil at the language of markets and competition, the broadening of authorized uses for these scholarships creates an opportunity—a new market—for public schools to offer new services to families.

A separate provision in HB 1 allows students to enroll in public schools part-time, allowing districts to serve these students and receive funding proportionate to the hours they attend. This gives districts a second potential avenue to serve families who value the district’s offerings but want something more flexible than a conventional full-time school.

This might sound farfetched, but data suggests there is demand for this kind of option. The latest state statistics show homeschooling has doubled in Florida over the past decade. How many of these new homeschooling families would gladly take advantage of a part-time district program if it were available? And surveys by the advocacy group EdChoice have found most families would prefer to keep their children at home at least one day during the workweek.

Districts could attract more families (or convince more families to continue enrolling children in their schools) if they found new ways to cater to these needs.

Competition isn’t just a marketing and communications challenge for school districts. It’s an opportunity to create new options that work better for all students.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at) sufs.org.