The New York Times recently reported that enrollment in nearly half of the nation’s larger public school districts has dropped steadily over the past five years, a trend due at least partly to the availability of charter schools that offer parents alternatives to traditional public schools.
Enrollment in the New York City schools, the largest district in the country, was flat from 2005 to 2010, but both Chicago and Los Angeles lost students. Declining birth rates and competition from charter schools were cited as factors.
These numbers probably won’t be surprising to champions of charter schools and critics of the status quo in public education. Charter schools were designed to offer alternatives to conventional public schools, and their creation was driven by dissatisfaction with the quality of public education. Given that reality, the migration of children from traditional public schools to charter schools seems like the logical expression of how education reform is supposed to work.
Ideally, the emergence of new competition for students should drive public schools to do better. “Education has gotten to be almost a sales job,” Susan Chard, a public school teacher in Mesa, Ariz., told The Times. “You want to provide reasons for parents to bring their children to your school.” Chard’s school closed because it lacked students.
Chard’s comparison of education to a marketplace should resonate with school reformers who believe that market incentives are the best way to drive constructive change in public education. That premise rests at the heart of new changes in public education advanced by Gov. Bobby Jindal. The governor gained approval for a program to offer more vouchers to public school students so that they can transfer from troubled public schools to private and parochial schools. Supposedly, that new program, coupled with the presence of charter schools, will encourage public schools to improve.
The Times story raised an interesting issue, though, that Louisiana residents should consider. As students leave troubled schools, what happens to those left behind? Not all students are candidates for charter schools or public schools. Some students have disabilities or other special needs. Other students have parents who are too disengaged to consider alternatives to the troubled school their child attends.
As The Times noted, as public school districts lose money because of declining enrollment, they have fewer resources to handle a growing proportion of students who are typically more difficult to educate. These school districts also have less money for the kinds of marquee programs, such as instruction in art, music and technology, that can help them draw more middle-class families back to the public school system.
That dilemma hasn’t really been discussed in the debate about public education reform in Louisiana, but it needs to be.