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Charter Schools, Pre-K, and the Question of Coordination, Part I

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This week we hear from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans. This post is by Jane Arnold Lincove, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland - Baltimore County and Non-Resident Research Fellow at Tulane University's Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

Today's post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the second installment of this post.

The ideal of local, non-bureaucratic, control of public schools has substantial appeal. Each student arrives at school with unique needs that change daily, and each school faculty and staff has unique strengths and personality that transcend centralization and control. The successes of charter schools often come from breaking free from this control and exercising freedom to select curriculum, develop instructional techniques, tailor discipline strategies to local context, and hire and train staff to implement a unique school program.

The shift to local control, however, also comes with challenges, many of which were not anticipated by advocates of market-based school reform. Nowhere is this more apparent than New Orleans, where, over the last 12 years, the centralized school district has transitioned to a majority-charter system. While evidence shows gains in student performance, broad decentralization had some unintended consequences. For example, putting schools in charge of their own enrollment led to unequal access to schools and to efforts by school managers to attract certain types of students, while discouraging others. Putting schools in charge of their own discipline led to unfair expulsions of students with disabilities.  In both these cases, the Recovery School District (RSD), which along with the local school board governs the majority of charter schools in the city, responded by expanding its role.

The latest study from ERA-New Orleans, authored by Lindsay Bell Weixler, Alica Gerry, and myself, offers insight into another struggle associated with a lack of central coordination: the provision of pre-K in New Orleans as the charter sector grew. Offering pre-K is optional for school districts outside a handful of states with universal pre-K laws. Pre-K is widely accepted as a proven strategy to support working families while improving kindergarten readiness. As a New Orleans parent, I was never more excited than the day when my child was able to transfer from a fee-based daycare to full-day, school-based pre-K in an excellent public school with no tuition.

On the surface, there is no reason why charter schools would not want to provide pre-K; and in our study, we found that charter school leaders universally support the idea of pre-K, but many are unable to finance it.

Our interviews with charter operators suggest that they believe in the social and educational benefits of pre-K for students, communities, and schools. But, without sufficient funds to cover the daily costs, what is best for the school can be at odds with what is best for students and communities.

School leaders from schools that don't offer pre-K told us that they simply cannot afford to make up a substantial funding shortfall between the level of state per-pupil funding for pre-K and what it actually costs to provide a high-quality pre-K classroom. School leaders from schools that do offer pre-K told us that they expect pre-K to benefit the school in material ways related to the accountability system in which they operate. First, they expect pre-K to be a good recruiting tool for increased and stable enrollment. Second, school leaders expect pre-K students to score higher on standardized tests when they reach tested grades (3rd grade and up in Louisiana).

We will discuss the results from our analyses that test these assumptions and the overall implications of our findings in Thursday's post.

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