Charter Schools, Pre-K, and the Question of Coordination, Part II
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 and a continuation of Monday's post.
In a decentralized system, individual schools can only achieve these benefits if pre-K students stick with their pre-K school over time. We tested this assumption and found that pre-K graduates do score higher on 3rd grade tests, but the benefits rarely accrue to the school where the child attended pre-K. Typically, schools with pre-K fill half their kindergarten seats with their own pre-K graduates, but by third grade, most pre-K students have moved to other schools. This means that any enrollment and test score benefits of pre-K move with the child.
Under these incentives, we document that the number of pre-K seats offered at charter elementary schools has dropped substantially as district-run schools were replaced with independent charter schools. By 2014 public schools as a whole enrolled approximately 45 pre-K seats per 100 kindergarten seats, down from 67 prior to Hurricane Katrina.
These findings are immediately important for parents of young children, but also point to a broader issue of decentralized school governance. U.S. school districts deliver myriad services every day, many of which - transportation, food, healthcare, social work - are beyond core education services, but vital to succeeding in the mission to educate. While academics (like me) examine the broad theoretical question of how and when school autonomy is appropriate and productive, policymakers and practitioners in cities that are committed to having a large charter sector need to consider how both required and optional beneficial services will be financed and delivered. This ranges from fundamental issues of how children are transported to school each day to more subtle issues of whether access to art and music are equitably distributed. A decentralized system will inevitably face decisions about whether these services are expendable or worth preserving through additional efforts and appropriate incentive structures.
An important difference from typical district settings is that majority-charter districts are unlikely to consider requiring schools to provide pre-K. In the decentralized setting of New Orleans, policy and financing innovations are a more likely pathway to provide services. In New Orleans, the problem of pre-K shortages is a challenge being addressed by a broad coalition that includes non-profit and for-profit early childhood centers, elementary schools, child welfare agencies and experts, university researchers, school district personnel, and state and local officials who are genuinely dedicated to providing high-quality early childhood education throughout the state. Their work, which is being studied by ERA-New Orleans, will provide a potential roadmap for coordinating educational support services more broadly to leverage the benefits of school autonomy while cushioning the risk to disadvantaged students.