Look below the surface of public-school competition

Studies have repeatedly found that competition from charter and private schools drives small but meaningful improvements in public schools’ performance. But most of those studies look at individual states or school districts, so the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has made a laudable effort to gauge competitiveness nationally.

The think tank’s new report crunches state and federal data to see which large districts across the country face the most competition from private and charter schools, as measured by the number of students in each district’s geographic area enrolled in non-district options.

The data demonstrate dynamics we’ve covered on this blog for years: Florida school districts like Miami-Dade County Public Schools face heightening competition from charter schools and private school scholarship programs. And they’ve responded by improving outcomes and creating new options for their students.

As Fordham’s Amber Northern and Mike Petrilli write in their foreword, “the whole ‘school choice versus improving traditional public schools’ debate presents a false dichotomy; we can do both at the same time. Indeed, embracing school choice is a valuable strategy for improving traditional public schools.”

The Fordham data are disaggregated by race, and they show that while there is still unequal competition for students of different backgrounds, all students have gained access to more options.

In most parts of the country, charter schools have been the largest source of new competition, as they’ve grown rapidly while private school enrollment has stagnated. That’s even true in Miami-Dade, the largest district in a state with the nation’s largest private school scholarship programs.

It’s true for students in Miami-Dade on average, but it’s not true for all groups. Private schools have driven the increase in competition to serve specific groups of students, including Black students.

This jibes with a point that researchers David Figlio, Cassandra Hart and Krzysztof Karbownik made in a recent study of the impact of charter schools on competition in Florida: The “competitive forces induced by the presence of charter and private schools appear to be complementary,” at least for some student outcomes. It’s possible schools in different sectors cater to different groups of students.

There is a key limitation of Fordham’s approach. The number of students who opt out of district schools is an imperfect indicator of competition. Private schools are booming in the San Francisco Bay area, but there’s little evidence that districts are scrambling to compete for their students.

On the other hand, while Florida’s private schools have grown slightly over the past two decades, the share of students using educational choice scholarships has grown faster. In other words, the mix of private-school students has shifted, and some students attending private schools now would have lacked the means to do so a decade or two earlier.

Studies detailing the resulting impact on public-school performance have shown that as Florida’s scholarship programs scaled up, performance improved faster in schools that served more low-income students, and thus had to compete for students whose enrollment they could previously take for granted. In other words, an ideal measure of competition may not be the share of students who have left district schools, but the share of students who could leave, and who districts feel compelled to serve more effectively as a result.

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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.