Category Archives: School Choice

School Competition: Forcing Improvement, or Forcing Marketing?


In an August 17th Wall Street Journal article, writer Stephanie Simon highlighted some pretty significant public relations campaigns being launched by urban school districts (St. Louis, MO & Denver, CO) in an effort to retain and regain students lost to nearby public charter schools. With school funding levels determined by student enrollment, dwindling enrollments in these districts translates into fewer dollars from state and local taxes. The pressure that these districts are dealing with comes as a result of a shift towards market-style accountability in public education. In fact, the dwindling enrollments that these districts are experiencing is exactly what market-style accountability advocates say is needed to improve public schools.

The goal of market-style accountability is to improve student achievement by increasing the level of competition between schools. In this context, “good schools” demonstrate their worth by attracting students and maintaining sizeable enrollments, while “bad schools” are held accountable by parents who remove their children from the school. What parents deem to be “good” and “bad” schools is highly subjective, and can vary substantially. But for advocates of this type of system, that’s irrelevant. All that really matters, they argue, is that the educational consumer (parent/student) is happy. Public schools become much like private schools. Private schools determine their own goals, standards, and methods, and must satisfy their consumers if they are to stay open.

The pressure of having to compete for students requires that school leaders adopt a markedly different approach to school leadership than in traditional bureaucratic systems or even in performance-based accountability systems. According to Leithwood (2001), school leaders faced with the pressure to compete for students must continually “recreate their schools as marketable products” (p. 227). It appears that for some urban school leaders, however, in addition to ensuring that schools are marketable, competition with charter schools forces them to aggressively market themselves. Many school choice advocates contend that if traditional public schools were good enough, their outcomes would do the marketing for them; but this may or may not be true. Research has shown that parents choose schools for their children for many different reasons, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with student achievement. So could it be that these urban districts are forced into launching marketing campaigns in order to remain viable?

If so, that scenario raises a host of concerns. First and most fundamental is the question which underlies much of the school choice debate: should traditional public schools have to compete for students in the first place? There no argument against public charter schools having to compete for students. The element of parental choice is fundamental to charter schools. But in systems where charter schools are able to pull large numbers of students away from traditional public schools, traditional public schools are forced to compete for survival in a similar vein to the charters. Additionally, there are questions about the appropriateness of spending significant amounts of public monies on marketing campaigns when urban districts clearly have other areas of need. So here’s my question (just to get you thinking): are school choice policies putting traditional public school leaders into situations where competition forces them to improve, or do these policies force traditional public school leaders into no-win situations where curriculum and instruction dollars go to marketing campaigns rather than decreasing class size or providing additional instructional aides?

What do you think?

References

Leithwood, K. (2001). School leadership in the context of accountability policies. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 4(3), 217-235.

Simon, S. (2009, August 17). Hard-hit schools try public-relations push. Wall Street Journal Online, http://online.wsj.com

Charter School Principal Salaries

The market-based and outcomes-based accountability systems that underlie the charter school concept are much different than the bureaucratic accountability systems that we have become accustomed to. While the specifics of charter school legislation vary considerably from state to state, the basic charter school concept is that these public/private hybrids of sorts are relieved of much of the bureaucratic oversight that traditional public schools are subject to, in exchange for agreeing to high standards of academic achievement. One area of freedom that many charter schools enjoy is budget autonomy; meaning most if not all school spending decisions are made at the school level, usually by boards of directors and school administrators. With that freedom, a number charter schools have chosen to pay their school leaders salaries that are significantly higher than the salaries of traditional public school principals. The Times Picayune reported on Sunday May 17, 2009 of some pretty remarkable salaries for charter school principals in New Orleans. At the top of that list were the head of Lusher Charter School who earns $203, 556 annually, and the principal of Lafayette Charter School who earns $186,000 per year.

It should be expected that many questions will be asked and much will be said about these salaries in the wake of this media attention. But issue I would like to focus on is this: if a charter school’s board of directors decides that the best way to meet the achievement goals of set forth in its charter is to pay its principal what the general public would consider to be an extraordinary amount of money, is that decision not that board’s statutory right? If that decision does not produce the results the desired results (at least theoretically) that school leader will be out of a job. And if that school does not reach the standards set forth in its charter, (again, theoretically) that school will be closed either because a state board of education has closed it or because parents have sent their children elsewhere. So the question that I raise is a simple one and is farther reaching than any question of an individual administrator’s salary in New Orleans. If by design charter schools are created as mostly autonomous entities with their boards of directors vested with the power to make autonomous school spending decisions, is the public entitled to any direct say in those decisions? As always, I’d love to hear from you!