A Benjamin Banneker Elementary School student sprints past a peeling mural of New Orleans on May 23, 2014. The school is closing at the end of the 2014 school year as New Orleans shifts to a charter school system, becoming the first city of its kind in the nation to do so. (Photo by Edmund D. Fountain for The Washington Post)

The school-choice movement is built on the philosophy that competition forces schools to improve.

But new research on New Orleans — arguably the nation’s most competitive school market — suggests that school leaders are less likely to work on improving academics than to use other tactics in their efforts to attract students.

Of the 30 schools examined in the study, leaders at just 10 — or one-third of the total — said they competed for students by trying to improve their academic programs or operations. Leaders at far more schools — 25 — said they competed by marketing their existing programs, including with signs, billboards, t-shirts, home visits and incentives for parents to refer potential students.

Seventeen school leaders said they added extracurricular or niche programs, such as arts-integration or language immersion programs, in order to distinguish themselves from the competition. And leaders at 10 schools exercised some sort of student recruiting or screening, even though almost all of them were supposed to be open-enrollment schools where such selection practices were not permitted.

“These school leaders do not always respond to competition in the ways that policymakers hope,” said the study’s author, Huriya Jabbar, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The study was released Thursday morning by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, a partnership that is based at Tulane University and is attempting to inject objective and useful information into what are often pitched debates over education policy. The alliance includes representatives from Louisiana charter schools, Louisiana teachers unions, local school boards and other education organizations, and its funders include the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the William T. Grant Foundation.

Source: Education Research Alliance for New Orleans policy brief
Source: Education Research Alliance for New Orleans policy brief

Many previous studies have attempted to assess the effect of such competition on schools by measuring student achievement gains on standardized tests. Competition has exploded in Washington, D.C. in recent years as the number of charter schools has grown, forcing even the traditional schools to get into the mix, selling themselves to local residents. At the same time, students’ math and reading proficiency rates have risen in both D.C. charter and traditional public schools.

[Under pressure, D.C. school system gets more aggressive about selling itself.]

But Jabbar argues that it’s impossible to fully interpret changes in student achievement without also understanding how choice actually works — how increased competition, that is, translates into change. She says her results suggest that New Orleans officials should do more to ensure that children have equitable access to schools and that schools have the supports they need to get better at what matters most: Teaching students.

“If schools, like firms in other markets, can choose to compete in ways other than improving their products — even in ways that violate district policies — a more significant role for a central authority may be warranted,” Jabbar wrote. “Without some process to manage the current responses to competition like student selection and exclusion, New Orleans could end up with a less equitable school system.”

Jabar noted that the city’s new centralized school-assignment process, called OneApp, could help reduce schools’ efforts to filter out undesirable students. The idea that there should be a stronger central authority is likely to draw resistance from a charter-school sector that counts schools’ independence among their biggest advantages.

This is the second in a series of reports by ERA-New Orleans. The first, released in January, examined how families choose schools and found that academic quality is not always the most important factor. Other features, such as location and extracurricular activities, play a key role in determining how parents — especially low-income parents — choose schools.

The alliance hopes to inform education policy not only in Louisiana but in the many cities around the country that have adopted the market-based reforms that have been so prevalent in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina leveled the traditional public school system in 2005. More than nine out of every 10 students in New Orleans attend charter schools, a greater share than any other U.S. city.