Monday, December 02, 2002

Concentrated Competition

Economic research by Caroline Hoxby (among others) has found that in order for charter schools and other systems of public-school competition to have an effect on public schools, the competition must be significant and actually impact specific public schools. This point seems obvious, but most school-choice experiments, including most charter schools, do not have a significant impact on the specific public schools they are competing with. In other words, until public schools feel a loss of students from their competition, there is no incentive to change ineffective school policies. In fact, I would argue that the right of students to exit the public schools (in a feasible manner), is the only reform strategy that will actually lead to real changes in public education.

So, I like the idea of Los Angeles school leaders and philanthropists coming together to create a “shadow” Los Angeles Unified School District through a charter-school network. Education Week reports that:

The Los Angeles Alliance for Student Achievement, the successor organization to two groups that mounted major education reform efforts in the 1990s, is hoping to open about 100 charter schools serving some 50,000 students over the next five years, alliance leaders say.

Plans are for the 2-year-old nonprofit alliance to apply for charters, hire principals, and then run "families" of elementary, middle, and high schools that together would strive to foster college-going cultures in disadvantaged communities. While details of the plan are still being worked out, its ultimate goal will be to leverage higher student achievement in the broader public system, chiefly in the 737,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.

While this will be difficult to pull off, even with the Los Angeles education elite supporting it, a 100 charter schools in Los Angeles in five years would provide real competition to perhaps the biggest education BLOB of all, LAUSD. And as I have argued elsewhere, even with the Supreme Court decision in favor of vouchers, charter schools are a reform strategy that more closely reflects the tradition of "local" education policy in the United States. With a charter school, the reformers have a much smaller political set of stakeholders to contend with. Not to say that it is easy to convince stakeholders that a single charter school is a good idea, but much easier than convincing say the entire state of California that school vouchers are a good idea. And I truly believe that the way to widespread school choice is to let as many public school alternatives as possible be allowed to prove their viability.

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