Competitive Edge: Market Forces Influence Nation’s Charter Schools

Nowhere are charter schools more closely examined than in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city scrapped its failing school system. Today, more than 90 percent of the city’s students attend tuition-free charter schools.

Some of the hopes for increased student achievement have come to pass in this grand experiment—various test scores have risen and completion rates are edging up.

And most of these schools are doing what their champions said they would in response to competition: they’re improving academic and operational quality.

What’s surprised researchers, officials and parents, though, is the extent to which market forces and competition affect how school administrators find and admit students, how students with learning difficulties have sometimes been excluded, and how the changes have influenced the teacher labor market.

“New Orleans is the city where charter school success is being examined and defined,” says Huriya Jabbar, an assistant professor in the Educational Policy and Planning program in the Department of Educational Administration in the College of Education.

Jabbar has been studying the charter school system in New Orleans for almost four years and is a nationally recognized expert on school choice and competition among schools.

Her background is in economics and early in her academic career she developed an interest in how public schools compare to the private sector.

“I’m interested in how markets interact with government. Markets don’t create equity. So my ongoing questions are, ‘What’s the role of the private sector in providing social services, and What is the role of government oversight of private organizations in public education, like charter schools?’”

“The theory is that competition puts healthy pressure on charter school leaders to improve their academic services, programs, extracurricular activities, or some combination of those, to attract and retain families,” she says.

According to Jabbar, most studies of New Orleans’ charter schools have missed an important point. “They assume that school leaders are aware of competitive pressures and can respond in productive ways.

“When I began my research in 2012, I wanted to know what actually happens in a competitive marketplace of schools. Are leaders aware of their competition? Which schools do they view as rivals and why?”

Jabbar also asked, “Do school leaders respond to competitive pressure by improving their schools academically?”

The results of her research showed that in the short term, the answer is no. “Competition places pressure on schools, but the strategies schools use to compete are not necessarily those that policy makers expected,” she says.

Every Kid is Money

Advocates of charter schools point to the fact that if schools don’t meet the standards of their charter, they will be closed.

Jabbar’s research found that some did focus on improving academics. About a third “added what they call ‘innovative curricular programs’ to attract parents, which is what we want them to be doing,” she says.

But to keep their charters, “almost all of the schools began to engage in superficial strategies that don’t generate  real change. The other concerning finding was that one third of the schools screened out students, even though they were supposed to accept everyone.”

In one interview, Jabbar quoted a principal as saying, “Every kid is money.” Another said, “We all want our [student] numbers up so we can get more money, more funding.”

This short-term focus on keeping their charters and attracting federal and local funding brought in by students meant that charter school principals were less likely to strengthen academics.

To position themselves to attract the right students, according to Jabbar’s research, principals engaged in a “selection strategy,” meaning they focused on activities such as moving low-performing students out of the schools, increasing targeted marketing and advertising, or both.

Some schools hosted invitation only open houses where they dissuaded parents whose students had poor academic records and could lower test scores. Some chose not to fill seats left empty mid-year by students who didn’t return or who were pushed out.

They didn’t want to fill those seats with students who might have been out of school for a few months or who had moved from school to school due to issues like behavior.

Jabbar says there were also signs of “cream-skimming”—leaders targeting affluent or higher-achieving students for supposedly open-enrollment schools.

Turning Point

In New Orleans, the model for charter school enrollment continues to evolve.

The focus on marketing and creamskimming by the schools prompted change in the way charter schools enroll students.

Parents now have access to a universal application to centralize enrollment. Parents list schools in order of preference and submit online.

“In the long term, my goal is for my research to result in more equitable school choice systems”

Using objective criteria, the system then assigns a child to a school.

“When schools can’t directly enroll students, they can’t screen out particular types of students as easily. It helps provide equal access,” Jabbar says.

And New Orleans continues to redefine its role as a regulatory body when it comes to K-12 education. The city is moving from a free market experiment in public education to one where government addresses market failures and concerns of equity.

Future Research Questions

Jabbar’s research has the attention of local and national organizations. She partners with Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University to disseminate research. Her findings have also received extensive local and national press coverage.

She’s extending her research to charter school programs in San Antonio and Detroit where, unlike New Orleans, there is more competition from a traditional public school system. In the spring, she was chosen as a 2016 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow.

“I’ll be exploring ways in which teachers find and choose jobs in cities with high numbers of charter schools,” she says. “I want to learn how school choice and charters influence the teacher labor market because voluntary moves impact the distribution of teacher quality across schools.

“In the long term, my goal is for my research to result in more equitable school choice systems.”