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Public, Charter, and Private Schools Through the Eyes of New Orleans' Parents

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Joshua Cowen of Michigan State University and Jane Arnold Lincove of Tulane University are guest bloggers today and write about their recent ERA-New Orleans' report on school choice.

Much of what we know about school choice in the United States comes from observing parents who choose one sector over another to provide for their children's education. Researchers have considered differences between parents who opt for charter schools over traditional public schools, for example, or differences between parents in Catholic over secular private or otherwise public schools. But in today's environment, parents may increasingly weigh their choices between a number of different school providers. Nowhere are such choices more apparent than in New Orleans, where all of these options are available.

Do some of these families consider all of these options together? New Orleans' parents may prioritize up to eight different schools across all three sectors via the city's common application system, known as OneApp. Some families--those with low incomes who attend low-performing schools--can even choose private schools that participate in the state voucher program. How do these voucher-eligible families choose between traditional public, charter, and private schools? This is a question we consider in new work just released by the Education Research Alliance of New Orleans at Tulane University.

The question is important for at least two reasons. First, as school choice programs expand, understanding what parents value in their selection process is necessary if school and district leaders, as well as policymakers, are going to meet the demand for that value.  Second, because these programs increasingly include school vouchers targeted toward low-income families (14 states now offer some form of voucher, with several more offering tax credits for private tuition), private school is now available to many children who, historically, have had limited access to that sector. One motivation for such expansions is the notion that competition for these students between public and private schools will improve overall performance of both sectors, but especially underperforming public providers.  Knowing more about the way parents who consider both sectors prioritize certain school features over others can help guide public school leaders in their response to new competitive pressures. Should they target their efforts toward improving academics, for example? Should they offer new extra-curricular programs or after-school care? Or are there certain features of private education--religious components, most prominently--on which that public schools simply cannot compete?

In our new study, we find that more than 1 in 5 families in New Orleans consider private schools on their OneApp. These families are equally divided between those who exclusively list private schools among their preferences, and those who consider a mix of both public (largely charter) and private alternatives. Those in the latter group are a special focus for us because they represent the group that might be induced to stay in (or return to) the public sector if high-quality options were  available.

And indeed, some parents do appear to consider such higher performing public options. Although parents who list both public and private schools as choices on the OneApp generally rank private schools higher on their list of preferences, they often rank public schools with high performance scores with or even above private schools.  We also found that private schools can be highly ranked despite relatively low indicators of academic quality.

Taken together, these patterns suggest that although parents seem to prioritize private schools--perhaps due to a perceived "brand" of private education above--academic performance in the public sector may attract or retain some families considering both options. These parents do not appear particularly interested in extra-curricular activities (although they do consider distance between home and school). What all of this means is that, although public schools hoping to draw students away from other public schools might consider adding extra-curricular activities, as earlier work on the OneApp by Douglas Harris and Matt Larsen has shown, public schools competing with private schools may be better served by focusing on academic quality. Just-released evidence from a separate team of researchers shows that, on average, LSP students are performing far below similar public school students on state standardized tests. If that finding holds up in future years, the value of a school voucher may diminish for parents prioritizing high academic achievement in their school selection process.

Our study does indicate significant challenges for public schools. Perhaps most notably, we find that parents looking at both sectors tend to give schools with higher percentages of low-income students, as well as schools with more students who have special academic needs lower ranks on the OneApp. One common criticism of school choice is that such programs may exacerbate differences between more advantaged students and those with at-risk backgrounds. Although our results do suggest that schools with more at-risk students find it more difficult to attract parents away from private schools, whether multi-choice systems like that in New Orleans can actually improve access to better alternatives for disadvantaged students is an important question for new research. Whether this is even a worthwhile policy goal is itself an unsettled debate, particularly in light of that evidence, noted above, that many private providers--at least in Louisiana--are actually underperforming their public counterparts.

Taken together, what we know so far from New Orleans is that some parents tend to prefer private schools overall, but some prioritize academic performance regardless of sector. Common applications like the OneApp appear to facilitate these comparisons, and researchers can use information from these choices to better inform school leaders and policymakers about how these comparisons are made. Although we have yet to know for certain whether these forms of enhanced school choice have long-term benefits to students, academic or otherwise, the evidence about the New Orleans charter-based system as a whole is encouraging. Whether the fact that one feature of that system is to give parents like those we studied here--parents who weigh public, charter and private alternatives together--more types of schools to choose from helps explain those apparent improvements remains an open policy question. For now, the simple fact that the New Orleans system actually provides a way for parents to make those comparisons, and to act on them at all, should warrant policymakers' attention.

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education: Lessons From New Orleans are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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