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What Does It Mean to Have 'More School Choice'? Part I

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The idea that families should have more school choice has been one of the major themes of school reform over the past two decades. The expansion of charter schools, home schooling, and vouchers has been rapid and has changed the schooling landscape.

But no city has gone as far as New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, attendance zones were eliminated after Katrina and eventually replaced by a centralized enrollment system (called "OneApp") where families can apply on a single form to almost any publicly funded school. Families simply rank schools in order of preference and the system, broadly speaking, tries to assign families to higher ranked schools. (Some, mostly selective admissions, schools under the Orleans Parish School Board still do not participate, although families can still apply to these separately.)

There also many different types of schools to choose from. In New Orleans, there are language immersion schools, arts schools, math and science schools, schools with "No Excuses" philosophies and others that reject that approach. Some schools are also striving for socio-economic diversity, while others are selective admissions and lacking student diversity. Most schools are trying to get students into college, but some schools are now offering a more vocational focus. To make these diverse offerings more accessible, almost all schools are required to provide transportation for all enrolled students.

So, it would seem that New Orleans has "more choice." But why then do we often hear parents in New Orleans asking, "is there really choice?" as one did during one of our recent panel discussions. One general reason--the topic of this post--is that parent perceptions depend not only on the diversity of options, the fairness of centralized enrollment, and availability of transportation, but on the availability of schools and programs they actually want.

A key issue is that schooling markets are inherently different from regular markets. In a free market, successful suppliers are supposed to respond to choice and competition by expanding, while less successful ones close. But there are good reasons to think this won't happen the same way in schooling markets. Educators don't think like business people, nor do they face the same incentives. As one principal said in another recent panel we held, she is busy enough just trying to make her current school better, a natural instinct when you are responsible for hundreds of children. Opening a new school is an enormous amount of work, requires a lengthy approval process, takes years to get off the ground, and usually has a minimal influence on school leaders' compensation. Those considering expansion also face uncertainty: Will students want to come to a new location? Will I be able to really replicate what I already have with a new staff? Will the market landscape and education policies change in the meantime? It's little wonder expansion is not at the top of their list of things to do.

Rather than having popular operators expand, less popular schools might respond to competition by adapting and imitating popular options, simply as a matter of survival. There is some evidence this occurs in New Orleans; for example, principals seem to know who their competitors are and adjust their programs in response to market research.

Even if schools do respond by getting better, a natural hierarchy of schools might remain. Families partly judge the quality of schools based on the types of students who attend them and in that sense school popularity is a zero-sum game. The student population is largely fixed and the only question is how they are distributed across schools. So, even if schools are similar in instructional strategies and quality, a few schools may end up being much more popular than the others simply because of the students they typically serve and the reputations that go along with that.  

A similar phenomenon arises with college choice. Among the very top-ranked schools, far more people apply than are accepted, though almost no one argues that instructional quality is much different between the top-ranked college and, say, the 25th ranked one. The prestige of colleges and schools matters and it is quite persistent over time.

Another factor affecting availability of options in preferred school is that even open enrollment schools may cherry-pick students. Again, this is not unusual in free markets--they are designed to be efficient, not equitable. This is partly why the same study that found that New Orleans schools do market research and adjust their programs also found that about one-third of schools in New Orleans cherry-pick. In other markets, it is perfectly normal and accepted that people with higher incomes get more and better products, but schooling is not a typical market and these practices go against the entire ethos of public education and our desire for equal opportunity.

Some of these issues are easier to address than others. In some cases when markets fail, the government can step in. For example, the state Recovery School District implemented centralized enrollment systems and rules to help prevent cherry-picking.

But again schooling markets are also inherently different from other markets in ways that may make it harder for markets to function well. In the movie, Waiting for Superman, families waited anxiously as lottery numbers were called out with winners gaining acceptance into certain popular schools. The excitement of the lottery winners stood in stark contrast to the anguish of those who lost. The message was that there are too few good schools. That is certainly true, but the same mix of excitement and heartbreak is likely to arise in any schooling market, even if the school system has succeeded in producing a large number of quality schools.

Again, the point here is to try and understand how the supply or availability of school might lead parents to feel like they have limited choice. This is enough for now. Later in the week, I'll add to this conversation by focusing on the difference between choice among specialized theme schools and comprehensive "cafeteria-like" high schools. Also, later in the summer, we will be releasing a paper that discusses how families perceive the centralized enrollment system itself. 

Before I sign off though, I want to send my condolences to the victims, families, and classmates of the three students of New Orleans' Cohen College Prep who were shot at a bus stop here yesterday. We can and should talk about school choice, but we're never going to get very far in improving the lives of students if we can't keep students safe from senseless violence.

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