Do public schools respond to competitive pressures?

Arizona has one of the most vigorous school choice environments in the country, with several tax-credit programs and a strong charter-school sector.

The Arizona Republic reports on school districts in the East Valley (Phoenix area) that have seen enrollment fall off in recent years. The growth of independent charter schools is one factor. Others include the collapse of the housing bubble and illegal immigrants leaving town.

One district is spending $38,000 to advertise itself via moving billboards (school buses), ads in movie theaters, and other means. Is that a waste of money? If that’s all the district is doing, yes. But if the district is creating new programs or new options for parents who don’t know about the innovations, advertising can be useful, both for the district and the parents who learn of new options.

Unfortunately, advertising is one of the easiest things for a district to do. If the district hires an outside agency, it’s easier yet: Turn it over to somebody else. Advertising is easy, as it does not require the heavy lifting required to make more fundamental changes that might attract new parents:  Get a new curriculum, hire a new set of teachers, cut the red tape and put more money into the classroom rather than administration. After all, traditional public schools are bureaucracies, with all the strengths–and weaknesses–that implies.

Still, some districts are, to their credit, may be responding. One is continuing all-day kindergarten, though state funding has been discontinued. The Republic mentions another district that “has tried to distinguish itself with specialized programs, called magnet schools,” though if you read carefully, you’ll find it’s not clear whether the schools were in fact created as a response to declining enrollment–which may yet be proof that districts still haven’t been able to respond appropriately to competitive pressures.

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