The Go Public campaign, which aims to promote Bexar County public schools, signifies an important shift in the school choice dialogue. By collaborating on a marketing campaign to promote their options and successes, San Antonio school districts are addressing the shift of public education from a government assigned system to a competitive marketplace where families are empowered to manage their own educational choices and hold schools accountable for performance.
In the absence of parental choice, schools lacked the healthy environment of client empowerment that is essential to innovation and improvement in most other service institutions. With the increase of charter, virtual, private, magnet, and homeschool options, families are no longer bound by zip code get their children a great education. Competition motivates all schools to respond to the loss of students and the revenues students bring.
To stay relevant, they must adapt quickly and meet their community’s needs. The power is now in the hands of the consumer. And that makes some people uncomfortable.
Traditional public school defenders often claim that school choice hurts public schools and does not benefit participants. However, studies consistently show that choice does the very opposite. Not only does competition improve the academic outcomes of the students who transferred to alternative public school options, but it also produces positive effects on student outcomes at the traditional public schools they left behind.
Take Michigan for example. Since their charter law was enacted in 1993, Michigan’s charter market has grown tremendously, serving roughly 8% of the state’s public school children (compared to about 4% in Texas). Contrary to anti-choice rhetoric, Michigan data debunks common charter school myths. Rather than “skimming the top,” demographic analyses show Michigan charters serving greater percentages of minority and economically disadvantaged students than their traditional counterparts (note similar demographic trends in Texas charter schools in that same report). Thirty-four percent of charter school students are African American and 70% are on free or reduced lunch, compared to 16% African American and 44% FRL at district schools.
According the 2013 Stanford CREDO study, charter students in Michigan gained an additional two months of learning per year in reading and math over their traditional counterparts. In Detroit, where 80% of the students are African American and 78% FRL, the gains are even greater with 3 additional months gained over one year. Not only are Michigan charter students benefitting from alternative public school options, but achievement also improved in traditional public schools faced with significant competition. Scores in these districts climbed by 2.4 scale points more per year in 4th grade reading and 2.5 scale points more per year in 4th grade math – increasing above and beyond the improvements made prior to charter competition and during the same period in public schools that did not face competition.
The chart below compares Detroit, a district facing competition, to affluent suburban district Grosse Pointe, one that did not face competition. At this rate, the magnitude of these improvements could close the achievement gap between Detroit and Grosse Pointe’s students in just under two decades.
A study of Texas school districts found similar results. Economists from Texas A&M, RAND, and University of Tennessee found that the emergence of charter schools had a positive impact on student test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools, especially when those schools were performing below average prior to the threat of competition. This study examined data over an 8-year period when charter schools served 1% or less of Texas public school students. Public charter schools now serve 4% of all Texas public school students, and the number of high quality operators is scaling significantly. Over time, the persistent increase in achievement will further demonstrate that “children who stay behind are not necessarily left behind.”
In every industry, competition motivates us to constantly improve. Schools must provide a service that meets the needs of families and the demands of the 21st century. Conversely, families must be responsible consumers – do the research and find the best fit for their children. The data shows us that competition drives positive results, but the anecdotal conversations I’m hearing across the city also indicate that San Antonio is trending in the right direction.
A friend of mine who teaches at a district school in San Antonio told me her principal started training campus staff to treat families like customers. Other charter parents who left their district schools after years of being unheard have said superintendents are personally calling them to ask why they chose an alternative and what improvements the district could make to bring them back. Early College High Schools are launching in San Antonio. Specialized career readiness programs are taking root in our high schools. Schools are figuring out ways to differentiate, innovate, and stand out. These are the conversations sparked by competition, and this kind of dialogue transforms education.
Annie Vu works for Choose to Succeed, a non-profit organization working to ensure that every San Antonio family has access to exceptional, tuition-free, public education options. As an English language learner and first generation college graduate, she has experienced the transformational value of education and strives to make that dream a reality for all families. You can follow Choose to Succeed on Facebook or Twitter at @SchoolChoiceTX.