“Every Kid Is Money”: Market-Like Competition and School Leader Strategies in New Orleans

Por: Huriya Jabbar

The University of Texas at Austin

Charter-school policies have been enacted for many different reasons. However, in policy debates, proponents and opponents of charter schools alike have framed them as vehicles for introducing market mechanisms into districts (Henig, 2008). Scholars such as Chubb and Moe (1990) drew on the decades-old ideas of Friedman

(1962) and others to argue that markets were more efficient and more responsive to parents than democratic control, and market tenets have since helped to shape education policy. A basic assumption underlying these policies is that more choice and competition will break up state monopolies to improve the quality and lower the costs of essential government services (Sclar, 2001). Although some advocates argue that choice is itself the point of such policies, a more compelling and widespread aim is to improve all schools through competition (Wohlstetter, Smith, & Farrell, 2013). School choice is thus intended not only to serve families who actively choose; it also introduces market pressures into unresponsive districts and thereby improves education for all students, a “tide that lifts all boats” (Hoxby, 2002). If schools do not respond to competitive pressure by, for example, improving their academic services and innovating (Adnett & Davies, 1999), they risk losing students and the funding that accompanies them. This could then lead to school closure. Although existing research has examined whether competition improves student achievement, it is also important to examine how that might occur and what the consequences of such policies are. Prior work that examines the effects of competition, measured through proxies such as geographic density or loss of market share, has primarily used quantitative methods (e.g., Bettinger, 2005; Hoxby, 2002; Ni, 2009; Zimmer & Buddin, 2005). This approach to studying competition has yielded small effects and mixed results, and because of the focus on student outcomes, it has rarely examined other possible outcomes of competition that are important to capture, such as changes to budgetary allocations (Arsen & Ni, 2012) or increased stratification of students (Frankenberg, Seigel-Hawley, & Wang, 2010; Hsieh & Urquiola, 2003), let alone the mechanisms by which such outcomes occur.

Few studies examine the strategic actions of school leaders who work in a competitive environment (for exceptions, see Holme, Carkhum, & Rangel, 2013; Jennings, 2010). School leaders may choose from a large typology of responses to competitive pressure, ranging from academic and curricular changes to promotional or marketing activities (Woods, Bagley, & Glatter, 1998). Schools’ positions in the marketplace, based on enrollment, funding, and performance, as well as their perceptions of competition, affect the ways in which school leaders respond (e.g., Jennings, 2010; Ladd & Fiske, 2003).

In this study, I investigate the competitive strategies that are used by 30 school leaders in the market-oriented environment of New Orleans, the circumstances under which school leaders use these strategies, and their implications for students and communities. In the year of this study, more than 84% of students in New Orleans attended charter schools, making it an ideal site to explore market competition. Existing empirical work has been constrained by the relatively low charter-school density in most districts. Therefore, in this study I examine how theoretical expectations of market behaviors play out in a district where market forces are likely stronger. Building on existing qualitative studies, I document a broader range of school leaders’ strategies and examine the conditions that mediate them. My results indicate that school leaders used a variety of strategies in response to competition. Although some school leaders reported using academic and operational strategies, some responded by, for example, finding a niche in the market, expanding extracurricular programs, marketing, and screening out students. Most importantly, only one third of school leaders reported adopting substantive changes, such as academic and operational improvement, and many more focused on marketing or promotional activities. In some cases, school leaders screened or selected students, practices that have important implications for equity. These patterns represent the range of strategies school leaders adopted in response to the immense competitive pressure in New Orleans. Because of the scale of its reforms, New Orleans is unique, but its reforms are not. They are, in fact, being implemented to some degree in most urban districts across the United States. The case of  New Orleans thus illustrates what happens when these reforms go “to scale.” Indeed, in cities such as Detroit and Washington, D.C., charter-school market share is catching up to New Orleans. It is thus important to inform these policy discussions with empirical evidence from policy-relevant sites such as New Orleans.

New Orleans is a “critical” case (Patton, 1990) for studying school leaders’ strategies under market pressure because of its high charter-school market share. It should yield the most information and contribute most to the development of theory about competitive behaviors and market pressures in schools because of its scale. If competition is indeed occurring as a result of expanded choice, we are most likely to observe it in New Orleans. The case thus elaborates and extends theory about how markets, well theorized and tested in the private sector, actually operate in public-sector institutions such as schools.

 Conceptual Framework

The theory of competition, even as it applies to the private sector, has traditionally had a vague conception of competitive processes, and the theory becomes even more speculative when applied to the public sector. Much of the research on competition analyzes the structure of an industry and how competitive it is; in other words, competition is understood as a state rather than a process (Barney, 1986). For example, competitiveness is measured by an industry’s barriers to entry, the number and relative size of firms, and the degree of product differentiation, as well as consumers’ overall sensitivity to price changes (Barney, 1986). In education, researchers have also measured competition primarily by its structure: the number of surrounding schools in a fixed geographic area or the number of students moving between schools. The focus on structure provides little understanding of firm strategy (Porter, 1981), except to suggest that firms may increase barriers to entry or differentiate their product to have a competitive edge.

Scholars have thus called for an examination of competition as a process (Burt, 1992; Ferlie, 1992; McNulty, 1968), whereby actors in firms develop strategies, take action, and compete with one another.

To compete, a school leader must recognize market pressures and respond accordingly (Ni & Arsen, 2010). For example, if a school loses students, the leader might first identify the cause of declining enrollment (e.g., parent dissatisfaction) and then select an appropriate response. School leaders’ perceptions of competition may matter as much or more than the typical proxies for competition (e.g., geographic density) for predicting schools’ strategic responses (Levacic, 2004). School leaders might feel more or less competition depending on a variety of factors, including knowledge of competitors (Holme et al., 2013), geographic density or loss of market share (e.g., Hoxby, 2002; Ni, 2009), or school and principal characteristics (Jabbar, 2014). School leaders might develop their own responses to competition after they scan the market for the strategic actions of other schools (Woods et al., 1998). It is thus as important to examine how schools interact with one another as understanding how they react to parents’ demands or preferences. To understand how competition might lead to school improvement, it is thus important to examine how school leaders actually perceive and respond to market pressures and how schools’ contexts influence their strategies.

Schools may experience competition differently because of their “status” or position in the market hierarchy. One definition of status is the extent to which a school is viewed as a competitor by other schools in the local education marketplace (Wasserman & Faust, 1994). Highstatus schools are ones that many other schools view as competitors. Status can also arise from being part of a prominent charter network or having high achievement. A school’s awareness of its status in the market hierarchy might inform its strategic actions in response to competition; schools at the bottom may feel they are unable to compete, whereas schools at the top might feel they are “above the fray” (Ladd & Fiske, 2003). A school leader’s capacity and knowledge of other actors may also moderate competitive effects in school districts; even when principals are aware that they are losing students to other schools, they may not be able to identify those schools or respond in productive ways (Holme et al., 2013) because of a lack of resources or their status in the marketplace. The competitive process as conceptualized in this study. Schools experience competitive pressures, and then adopt various strategies as a result, mediated by school conditions.

School leaders might respond to competition in a variety of ways (for a typology, see Bagley, 2006). They might adopt academic or curricular strategies (Goldhaber & Eide, 2003), although there is little evidence to date that competition actually elicits this type of response (Davis, 2013; Kasman & Loeb, 2013). School leaders might change the existing allocation of resources (Arsen & Ni, 2012; Ghosh, 2010) to improve operational efficiency, or they might differentiate their products, engaging in monopolistic competition (Chamberlin, 1933; Robinson, 1933) by developing strategies to exploit their uniqueness, protect their market share, and buffer themselves from competition. School leaders, for example, might develop specialized programs within their schools or position their entire schools to fill a niche (Woods et al., 1998). When school leaders form niches, they are not necessarily improving their existing programs and offerings, but developing new ones. Such programs might generate allocative efficiency (Glomm, Harris, & Lo, 2005), when schools and students become better matched. Schools may also respond to competition by engaging in promotional activities, such as marketing (Gewirtz, Ball, & Bowe, 1995; Lubienski, 2007), or they might select, recruit, and discipline students to shape their student bodies, what Jennings (2010) calls “schools’ choice.” Selection of students can occur via locational decisions (Lubienski, Gulosino, & Weitzel, 2009), marketing activities, or outright cream skimming and cropping (Welner, 2013).

A small number of qualitative studies have examined schools’ competitive strategies in other contexts (Gewirtz et al., 1995; Holme et al., 2013; Jennings, 2010; Woods et al., 1998). This study significantly extends such prior work by, first, examining a large representative sample of 30 schools in a district and, second, examining the conditions under which schools pursue particular strategies. Beginning with the process of competition and then working toward its results may be a “less elegant route for theory,” but it is arguably “one that veers closer to the reality of competition as we experience it” (Burt, 1992).

 Study Design

This study uses case-study methods to explore the range of actions reported by school leaders in response to competition and how context influences their reported behaviors. Case studies allow researchers to explore complex phenomena that have been incompletely conceptualized (Creswell, 2003), as with market behavior in schools.

Site Selection: New Orleans as a “Critical” Case

Reformers, advocates, and policymakers have called New Orleans a model for school reform (Harris, 2013). In 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the resulting flood damaged much of the city and many of its schools. The state-run Recovery School District (RSD) had been established in 2003 to take over failing schools, improve them, and return them to the traditional school board. In the post-storm chaos, legislation was passed to give the RSD a majority of the city’s schools. The traditional Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) retained only non-failing schools. Although in previous years, parents had to apply to charter schools individually, in 2012, the RSD instituted a common application system, the One App, for its schools. By the end of the year, direct-run schools in the OPSB would also join the One App so that parents could rate them alongside RSD schools. OPSB’s high-performing charter schools, however, were not required to join until charter renewal.

Studies of competition in other sites have been limited by charter-school enrollment that is too low to create sufficient market pressure. This is not the case in New Orleans, where 84% of students attended charter schools in 2012–2013. “New Orleans offers a unique case, perhaps best epitomizing competitive models for education” (Lubienski et al., 2009, p. 615). Although New Orleans offers a unique site to explore market dynamics, its model is migrating to many other cities in the United States (Lake & Hill, 2009).


Sampling Schools Within New Orleans

Geographic density was a key variable in previous studies of competition, which predicted that a school would feel greater competition when surrounded by more schools, so I used a geospatial sampling strategy. I mapped all schools in New Orleans and then counted, for each school, the number of other schools with overlapping grade levels within a 2-mile radius. I sorted schools bythis number and created three equal strata, representing schools in low-, medium-, and high-density areas. I randomly selected 10 schools from each stratum, resulting in a set of 30 schools that had representative percentages of schools from both the RSD and OPSB, including charter and direct-run schools, and reflected the distribution of grade levels (e.g., elementary, middle, high) in New Orleans.


School Leaders’ Responses to Competitive Pressure

Most school leaders studied in New Orleans felt competitive pressure and reported competing with other schools. Of the 30 schools in this study, 29 reported at least 1 competitor. Most of them also defined competition in terms of enrollment and observed that school-choice policies generated competition for students and their associated dollars. For example, when asked whether their school competed with other schools for students, responses included emphatic affirmatives (“Yes, Lord!” and “Absolutely!”), as well as comments such as “Every kid is money”; “Enrollment runs the budget; the budget runs the enrollment”; and

“We all want our [student] numbers up so we can get more money, more funding.” Other principals explained this relationship in greater detail:

Choice is a competition, by the way, for students. It’s the whole idea. Parents get to choose a school that they feel has the best fit for their family, that they feel is going to do a good job of teaching their child . . . there is a competition built in with a choice system. (Principal, Hicks Elementary)

We’ve constantly been very over our budgeted number, which is a lot more comfortable than being scraping by, which we were last year, like one or two [students] above. Which is sad to say that they’re numbers but . . . otherwise you’re shut down. (Operations Manager, Meade Elementary)

At Robinson School’s board meeting, a PowerPoint slide read as follows: “Sustainability = Student Enrollment = Minimum Foundation Program,” referring to the state’s per-pupil financing scheme. In response to competitive pressures, school leaders were compelled to attract and retain students at their school. School leaders were thus aware of the link between their enrollment numbers and the funding they received.


Buffering Competition Through School Differentiation: Developing a Niche or Focus

Schools specialized to meet perceived needs or preferences, whether academic or nonacademic, often creating new institutions or new programs within the school. Schools developed product-based (Betts & Loveless, 2005) or geographical (Lubienski et al., 2009) niches, focusing on a particular neighborhood or area, despite a simultaneous pressure to mimic successful organizations (Lubienski, 2003). Such strategies could buffer schools against competition. Few schools that had niche programs experienced high competition, and several were in the process of developing niches as a response to competition or perhaps as a way of avoiding it. Niche programs may provide parents with more choices and may result in better matches between students and schools, but niche programs do not necessarily aim to improve educational quality.

 Academic Niches.

Six schools developed, or were in the process of developing, niche academic programs to attract students. In some cases, these included high-caliber students who would be screened prior to admission. Schools that added niche academic programs to their existing offerings were described earlier; here, I focus on those that differentiated their entire school. One school leader, when asked how she competed for students, pointed to her application to become an International Baccalaureate (IB) school: “I really think this whole notion of IB is big, and that’s probably the key.” A press release on its website reported that it was the first IB school in the city, and the principal said, “Presently there are seven high schools and middle schools offering IB programs in Louisiana, but no other elementary schools.” This was also an academic strategy, but played a crucial role in differentiating the school from others.

Schools also adopted, or were in the process of adopting, specialized language or arts programs. One of the schools had a language-immersion program, and a school leader described the relatively low competition her school experienced because of the specialized program: “I have a French immersion program, so there’s a little slice of the pie out there for French.” Even among the French-language schools, there was some differentiation. According to the principal, as she referred to one of the other schools, “Their

French program, for example, is the European curriculum. Ours is Louisiana curriculum.” A second school in the sample also had an immersion program and referred to itself as the “only multilingual, full language-immersion school in the state of Louisiana.” When asked what strategies she used to make her school more competitive, one principal reported pursuing a state-level arts program certification to integrate arts into the curriculum, which would make it the “first school in the New Orleans area” to receive this certification.

To attract students, some schools were developing specialized programs and even becoming certified in them. Although some of these drew “gifted” or otherwise already high-performing students, other programs reflected different philosophies of academic excellence, such as the arts-integration and the language immersion programs.

 Other Niches.

In addition to academic niches, schools also differentiated themselves by the neighborhoods or populations they served. One stand-alone school, which was in the process of growing into a CMO, took over another school in an area where there was a low concentration of schools. In that way, it sought a geographical niche:

There has historically been a dearth of great schools in the city but most specifically and additionally in the [neighborhood name] community . . . The [neighborhood] is, in my mind, is just often forgotten. So, as a board, we really think our success as a school, we can just lend some help to building more great schools in the [area].

One school identified a gender niche, offering same-sex education, as a selling point for parents. The principal described this niche program:

I can’t say I know of any urban male public schools in the state—we’re one of a few if not the only school like that in the state. There’s definitely a niche for it, obviously. You get the kids typically that are behavior problems from other schools . . . We’ve been fortunate in that because there is such a need for this school that through the years our numbers have drastically increased.

Another school leader received assigned students who had been expelled from other schools due to behavioral issues, and although she still recruited “choice” students, she also ensured a certain level of enrollment from the authorizer because of her school’s niche.

One school leader developed the niche for her school based on data she had access to while working for the RSD, which showed that there was a specific overage population in the city that did not receive adequate educational services:

When I wrote the charter, I was working for RSD . . . and I was able to access the database . . . There were 1,728 students that qualified for the school. So, yeah, definitely the need was there. As she said about her competitors,

There’s only one other choice because my population is a specific population. They are . . . at least two years behind in grade level. So a lot of my students, other people won’t take, because they’re 19, 20, 21 [years old], they’ve been incarcerated, they’ve had babies, they have all these issues, and we try to work with them.

The niche her school occupied seemed to buffer her from competition. Because of the specific population she served, she only had one competitor.

 Extracurricular Activities and Student Services.

Eleven out of the 30 schools mentioned extracurricular activities to recruit or retain students, usually as a way of differentiating their school from others. One school, for example, viewed other schools that offered athletics programs as competitors, and when the school had to make severe cuts because of a budget shortfall caused by low enrollment, athletics were spared because they were believed to be key to attracting and retaining students in the school. The principal said of the board, “They know that in order for us to keep these kids we really have to have a strong athletic presence.” These extracurricular offerings were essential to the school’s competitiveness and meant allocating funds to non-academic programs that were deemed successful for recruiting students. Similarly, alternative schools were especially concerned that their exclusive focus on academics was deterring students. One alternative school brought in career and technical education programs and culinary arts to attract more families. Two other schools believed that their lack of certain extracurricular activities, such as a marching band, limited their ability to compete.

Overall, 17 out of 30 schools offered some kind of niche program or extracurricular activity that they believed helped to attract parents or limit competition. This finding complements research on parents’ preferences for extracurricular programs when selecting schools in New Orleans (Harris, Larsen, & Zimmerman, 2015).

The motivation for adopting these niche programs might go beyond competing with other schools or serving a specialized population; they might derive from a belief that these programs were better for teaching and learning, and would ultimately improve academics. Indeed, as stated earlier, these strategies are not meant to be mutually exclusive, and seeking a niche should not be viewed as an entirely non-academic strategy.

However, when leaders discussed their schools’ focuses or themes, they described them primarily as a preemptive response to competition, focusing on the novelty and the uniqueness of the program to attract a certain population to their schools. Because the principals understood them as differentiation strategies, they have been classified as such, although many of the programs likely had academic merit as well.

 “Glossification” and Marketing

Marketing strategies were by far the most common response to competition. Twenty-five out of 30 schools used some kind of marketing strategy. Schools most often responded to the pressure to attract and retain students by marketing programs and services that the school already offered. School leaders articulated programs and strategies they were using to improve the school, perhaps resulting in better communication with parents even when no change or improvement in the school had been made. Schools used a range of marketing strategies, including signs, billboards, and bus stop ads (8 schools); flyers and mailings sent to parents’ homes, placed in church bulletins, or handed out in grocery stores (11 schools); home visits (7 schools); parent incentives for referrals (5 schools); bags, T-shirts, and other items with logos (4 schools); print and radio ads (8 schools); partnerships with child care centers or supermarkets (8 schools); work with local celebrities (2 schools); attendance at school fairs hosted by the district or local organizations (13 schools); and open houses and other events at the school (8 schools).

As marketing became necessary to attract and retain children, schools appeared to pursue more sophisticated branding strategies. As Gewirtz et al. (1995) find, the introduction of market forces creates a cultural transformation in education, where surface appearances and images are increasingly important, what they call a “glossification” of schools. For charter schools especially, managing one’s brand was important. Two schools that were transitioning into CMOs were investing in branding and marketing. At a board meeting, there was a presentation from a consulting group that worked with public organizations in New Orleans to help them develop a marketing campaign; its mission was to develop “strategies to make schools competitive in the marketplace.” Because the CMO’s two schools existed in different locations, with different histories, and because the CMO was hoping to take over another school in the future, it was important for them to establish name recognition and a coherent message. The other school that was expanding to become a network of two schools also focused on “rebranding” as a CMO rather than a stand-alone charter. At a board meeting I attended, they discussed how they were in the process of designing a new logo and rebranding the website. Finally, another school that was part of a CMO was obtaining a trademark for their school’s brand “to protect and preserve, to the extent possible, the integrity of Stone School in the media” (Board member).

 Creaming” and “Cropping”: Screening and Selecting Students

In addition to formal marketing efforts, schools recruited or screened students informally. In openenrollment schools, which were the majority of schools in New Orleans, screening and selection practices were not permitted. Most schools were expected to accept all students who applied and were supposed to hold a lottery if they had more applications than slots available. Ten out of 30 schools engaged in some kind of selection process, whether allowed to or not. Only one school in the sample had explicit selective-admissions criteria, but one of the other schools required language tests for placement after the first grade because of its immersion program. No other schools were allowed to have admissions criteria, yet eight of these “fully open-enrollment” schools reported engaging in some kind of selection process.

Some leaders at schools that were underenrolled decided not to advertise open spaces to maintain control over their student body. These schools, with available seats midyear, chose to forgo additional funds so as to not recruit the types of students who have been out of school for weeks or who have been kicked out of other schools. Schools thus used the act of not engaging in marketing as a form of student selection. One principal identified the “double-edged sword” with regard to advertising openings at his school and screening out students:

And now for us that battle is unique because we know the more we advertise and push the fact that we have openings, the more less-capable students we get. So yeah, I’m about 100 kids below what we were targeting, but it’s a double-edged sword. Do I want a hundred kids in the building who aren’t in school?

The year of the study was one with high stakes for this charter school, as test scores would determine the renewal of its charter. The school leader preferred to be under-enrolled than recruit the “wrong” type of student, a pattern also found by Lubienski (2005) in Detroit, where districts and neighborhoods with declining enrollments and available seats preferred to remain empty or recruit students from the suburbs rather than open seats to local families.

Schools also had informal contact with affluent parents seeking placement. In some cases, prominent leaders in the city facilitated such relationships. For example, in an interview with a school board member, he described an informal school-assignment mechanism:

There’s no way to figure out where there are spots so usually what happens is people just call. They should call the school system, and they do, but it’s just not the way people are in New Orleans. People call people they know.

He went on to describe how an acquaintance reached out to him:

So he calls and I was like: forget about Schelling, there’s no slots there, but let me check around with the school leaders” . . . It’s impractical and as crazy as it sounds, there is no list. Part of it is that nobody wants to give up that information in a real-time format and part of it is that everybody thinks that they’re going to get screwed somehow.

Other schools obtained this real-time information through informal relationships with schools that were closing or selective-admissions schools that were oversubscribed. The informal assignment of students, in which schools kept information on empty seats to themselves, gave schools much more control over which students to accept and served as a form of selection.

One school asked parents who the principal “believed epitomized an Arrows Prep parent” to bring like- minded parents to a special, inviteonly school night:

We’ve done invite-only open houses, where we target specific types of parents, and we say, “Hey, we really love you as a parent and we want you to bring another parent who’s like you.” . . . So I got a couple of parents that way.

This targeted recruitment of “specific types of parents” could also be viewed as a form of selection, as the school tries to attract certain types of students. The principal at another school said that the school “is not for everyone,” despite the fact that it was open enrollment. Another principal was working to expand their gifted programs to attract higher-performing students. Another open-enrollment school screened out midyear transfers, but made exceptions for some:

We just had a parent come this morning trying to get a kid in. I said, “I’m sorry, you can’t do that. I don’t have any way of knowing what the kid’s been doing for the last couple of months” . . . Now, I do have two coming in tomorrow from LaPlace that flooded during Isaac so of course I need to look at them because they lost their homes . . . But you just changing schools locally here in New Orleans, I’m a little leery about why you would be doing that. But hey, you’re a great kid, I’ll look at it! [laughter]

Another open-enrollment school that was set to join the OneApp described how it would affect their selection processes because they would no longer be able to screen families:

On OneApp, the children choose you. You don’t have that communication and dialogue that we had. Previously, we were able to do interviews and just see if the family fit for our institution . . . Some students may want to come for name, but will not be prepared for the expectations of the school.

She also described how parents who were not “ready to step up to the plate” or prepared for the school’s “high expectations” would usually transfer out a form of selection through attrition. Another school acknowledged that the fact that they did not provide transportation could be viewed as a form of selection.

One school continued to reach out to families that might not have thought that the school was an option for them, even when the school was oversubscribed and had a long waitlist:

Though we don’t have any problem getting applicants, we feel a moral obligation to go out and make sure we’re reaching everyone. That we’re not overlooking families who just hear “Stone School” and think “that’s not available to me.”

This principal recognized that stopping recruitment efforts when there were enough students might limit the applicant pool to families who already had access to information resources through their networks or other means. She continued to market selectively to recruit a more diverse student body.

When schools reported selecting students, they seemed to view it not as a choice but as a necessity to survive. In most cases, principals reported such practices matter-of-factly. Schools in New Orleans are responding to market pressures, but they are also responding to a “different set of incentives” (Lubienski, 2005), including balancing the accountability pressures to improve test scores with the need to enroll more students. Similar to the school districts that were unwilling to market their schools to local families in Detroit, some schools in New Orleans preferred to remain under-enrolled than to attract students who might hurt their test scores. The fact that school leaders shared these practices with me suggests that they did not see them as problematic. Rather, they viewed these practices as just part of their effort to create a coherent school culture or as a necessity for survival in a market-based environment.

 Conditions Mediating School Leaders’ Strategies

Although previous studies have documented similar responses to competition in other contexts, this study also examines the conditions under which schools pursue particular strategies. Schools’ strategies in the competitive market differed depending on the amount of competition they perceived and their position in the market hierarchy, conditions that mediated the particular strategies they adopted in response to competitive pressure.Schools with high status or prestige, based on how other schools perceived them, adopted different strategies compared with low-status schools, yet all but one school engaged in some form of competitive behavior. I first discuss how a school’s perceptions of competition and position in the market hierarchy mediated its strategies. Then I discuss other school conditions that influenced schools’ strategic responses to competition or interacted with competition more broadly, providing schools with either a competitive advantage or disadvantage.

Perception of Competition Influences Strategic Actions

Perceptions of competition can influence strategic actions (Levacic, 2004), even more than objective measures of competition. The extent to which school leaders in New Orleans perceived competition, based on the number of competitors they listed on a survey, was related to their strategies. Schools experiencing high competition more frequently adopted academic, extracurricular, and marketing strategies, although some differences were not very large. Schools experiencing low and moderate competition more often engaged in operational changes, adopted niche programs, or screened and selected students. This might seem counterintuitive schools that experience low competitive pressure might be less inclined to form niches or select students, but it is important to remember that these relationships are bidirectional. Schools with niches might also feel less competition as a result of carving out a protected slice of the market. Similarly, schools that engage in selection practices may perceive less competition because they have greater control over their student enrollment, or it may be that schools that perceive less competition are oversubscribed and thus are able to selectively admit students without incurring loss of revenue.

At the other extreme, the one school that felt no competition did not engage in any competitive strategies. The leader reported that he did not compete with other schools because his school was slated for closure in the coming year, and only students who were already enrolled at the site would continue for the 2012–2013 year:

“The kids that have to go here, go here. And that’s just being honest. I don’t think that kids search out and say ‘I’m going to Frisch.’”

School Status in the Market Hierarchy Influences Strategic Action

How a school was perceived by other schools was also associated with specific strategies. Schools that were viewed as a competitor by many other schools were considered “high status” or popular (Wasserman & Faust, 1994). High-status schools engaged in operational strategies less frequently than other schools (see Figure 3). It may be that operational effectiveness makes high-status schools natural competitors. In addition, high-status schools were more likely to engage in student selection. Schools that selectively enroll students, either by design or by cream skimming even when district policies do not allow them to, may be viewed as competitors more often because other principals believe that selective schools recruit away strong students from other schools and send back lower performing students. For example, one principal at a low-status school believed that the reason she received students midyear, just before testing, when she “had no opportunity to even touch the child,” was because other schools were “kicking children out who have been problems all year long” (Principal, Simon School).

Other Contextual Factors Influencing the Nature of Competition

School leaders also described several other factors, including academics, charter networks, and facilities, that constrained or enabled their adoption of particular strategic responses.

Charter Networks.

School leaders perceived that competition for students occurred on an uneven playing field, and reported that charter networks seemed to have a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Stand-alone schools and direct-run schools, in particular, believed it was difficult to compete with what they referred to as “brandname” schools with seemingly larger advertising budgets and resources. Stand-alone charters were more likely to engage in academic, operational, and niche strategies than either direct-run schools or those in networks. It is not surprising that stand-alone charter schools adopted niches more frequently, because that is one of the primary goals of charter schools (Lubienski, 2003).

At the same time, larger CMOs that aim to grow to scale and serve a large portion of the student population might not adopt particular niche programs. Although almost all schools engaged in some kind of marketing, with no major differences across school types (e.g., charter, direct-run), schools differed in the sophistication and scope of their marketing and branding campaigns, as evidenced in the qualitative data. For example, the principal at Engels Elementary, a direct-run school, said he used community organizations “to market in areas that we’re not able to market with billboards and stuff like that,” referring to billboards placed by several of the larger charter networks. Other schools were also unable to advertise as much as they would like because of budget constraints. Yet, schools that were part of CMOs often relied on the network to create flyers or send representatives to fairs. Networks A and C had billboards and bus ads, and Network A helped to raise funds and allocate students at the network level, removing that burden from the individual school. Network B’s central office created flyers for the schools, although each school conducted its own, targeted outreach.

CMOs appear to benefit from private philanthropic support. Overall, private contributions provide approximately US$272 to US$407 per pupil, or about 3% of total revenues, but for some charter networks, these figures can be as high as 29% (Cowen Institute, 2009). CMOs were able to support the funding of professional marketing and branding campaigns to promote the charter network overall, if not individual schools.


Unlike organizations in the private sector, schools usually did not have control over their school sites, because there was a master plan at the district level to allocate facilities. Therefore, schools were unable to respond to competition by improving their facilities, but they did note that new facilities provided a competitive advantage, whereas temporary facilities provided a disadvantage overall. There were some differences between schools with temporary, permanent (but old), and new facilities. Schools with temporary facilities more often engaged in operational strategies, perhaps as part of an effort to secure additional space through partnerships (one school partnered with a cultural center to use additional space, for example) or expansion, by taking over other schools, for example. They also more often engaged in niche strategies and marketing strategies. Schools in new facilities were less likely to engage in many strategies, including operations, niche, selection, and marketing. In fact, one school’s new building received so much press coverage that the principal no longer advertised openings.

School leaders also expressed a general view that new facilities were important for attracting parents and for meeting parental demand with sufficient space. New facilities attracted parents not only because they were “gorgeous,” as one principal said of hers, but because they also signaled to parents that the school could offer more services and extracurricular activities, which also made them more competitive: “Given the facility,

I think parents definitely want to come because of that.” She went on to say that they could “provide more opportunities to their students,” in the form of electives and other activities.

School leaders also reported that lack of sufficient space or low-quality facilities diminished their ability to recruit more students. One principal of a direct-run school described how his lack of adequate facilities affected what he could offer to parents:

I went to Meade Charter School just yesterday for a meeting and their new building is just beautiful. A brand new building. Beautiful. And I think that’s where the other part of competition kind of fades for us because we don’t have the newer building . . . that’s afforded some of the charters. And it does kind of wear on what you can offer to parents. (Prescott Elementary)

For schools already in high demand, space constraints prevented their expansion. Five schools reported this as the major reason they could not enroll more students. Schools with independent funding were even considering building their own sites; others rented space from colleges, cultural centers, and churches. Location uncertainty made it harder to compete. For example, one concerned board member at Stone said, “Not having a location weighs heavily on parents’ decisions for enrollment.” School leaders believed that facilities factored into parents’ decisions; schools with new facilities attracted parents, whereas schools lacking new facilities believed this partially explained their inability to compete.


Competition placed pressure on schools, especially those that were low performing or underenrolled. School leaders engaged in a number of strategies owing to the competition. Ten schools reported efforts to improve academic performance to increase student enrollment, attract parents, or compete with other schools. Many more schools (n = 25) used marketing strategies. Some schools reported improving their operations in response to competitive pressures, which could potentially lead to a more efficient allocation of resources. Schools also developed niches, which might provide better opportunities and stronger matches between students’ needs and school offerings. However, this is certainly different from the traditional economic view of a “rising tide lifting all boats,” whereby educational improvement occurs “through large numbers of schools competing to produce a homogenous product” (Betts & Loveless, 2005, p. 37). Rather than entering an already crowded marketplace, these school leaders carved out a slice of that market, preempting or avoiding competition.

Although competition is expected to improve schools, leaders’ responses to market pressures were not always efficient or equitable. Alongside their efforts to improve academics and operations, schools also engaged in practices that were superficial, in the case of marketing, or inequitable, in the case of screening and selecting students. Although marketing may provide better information to parents, it does not represent a substantive change to school programming or operations (Bagley, 2006). Furthermore, some marketing and selection practices segmented the market further, in ways that could exacerbate inequities by limiting educational opportunities for certain families. For example, some schools targeted children who were already high performing and found ways to circumvent the centralized assignment process, either to save slots for such students or to prevent students who might be struggling from enrolling. Most charter schools in New Orleans were not permitted to enroll students outside a lottery system, yet several did. Others were required by the OneApp system to report available seats to the central office in real time, but did not. Such practices actually limit parents’ choices. Even if schools in New Orleans on average are improving, there are concerns that not all students have equal access to better schools. Some evidence suggests that mobility patterns in New Orleans are consistent with a segmented market, with low-achieving students switching to low-performing schools and high-achieving students transferring to highperforming schools (Welsh, Duque, & McEachin, in press), yet whether this has worsened or improved since before Katrina remains unknown.

These findings, although particular to New Orleans, have important implications for policy, especially for the many other districts that have adopted, or have considered adopting, similar reforms. These findings suggest areas in which the district could play a role to ensure a fairer marketplace, mitigating some of its adverse effects. Central-assignment programs, such as the OneApp, may reduce inequities in access, by not leaving admissions entirely to schools, and may also simplify the process for families. However, districts can also provide better information and closer oversight to ensure that families are able to access schools they need. Districts might ensure that non-marketing information, such as thirdparty reports of school performance and program offerings, is readily available to parents to make informed decisions, and they might target that information to low-income parents to have greater impact (Hastings & Weinstein, 2008). Districts might also more carefully monitor within-year transfers, ensuring that empty seats are filled through the central office at all times. To some degree, these suggestions echo those of advocates of portfolio-management models, who argue that even in systems of choice, districts have an important role to play (Bulkley, Levin, & Henig, 2010; Lake & Hill, 2009).

This study also makes several contributions to the literature. First, this study contributes to our understanding of how market-based reforms operate in the public sector. In particular, I build on existing literature that examines whether competition improves student outcomes (e.g., Hoxby, 2002; Ni, 2009; Zimmer & Buddin, 2005) to explore the mechanisms by which that might occur. I find that schools draw from a broad range of strategies in responding to competition, reflecting findings about competition in the United Kingdom (Woods et al., 1998). Like other researchers, I find marketing to be the most common competitive strategy (Gewirtz et al., 1995; Kasman & Loeb, 2013; Lubienski, 2007).

I also document the various selection strategies schools used, building on prior work (Jennings, 2010; Lubienski et al., 2009; Welner, 2013), and noting new strategies, such as “not marketing” as a form of selection. Second, this study contributes to theory by highlighting the role that social dimensions play when they interact with market pressures. For example, the informal assignment of students occurred via school leaders’ social networks, reflecting findings in other studies that have shown how networks moderate competition (e.g., Jennings, 2010). School leaders’ position in the marketplace, whom they view as competitors, and their status based on competition, charter network, and school performance, influenced the strategies that they used in a competitive environment. Schools scanned the environment and mimicked each other (Lubienski, 2003; Woods et al., 1998), in the case of marketing, whereas others differentiated themselves and sought a niche (e.g., White, 1981). In fact, many of the academic strategies were niche strategies; many schools tried to offer something unique or different from their competitors. This suggests it is important to look beyond “competitive effects” to examine the process of competition, including the specific strategies schools adopt, and how social and cognitive factors play a role. Otherwise, researchers and Policy makers may miss important mechanisms that explain how and why competition influences student outcomes, for better or worse, and miss opportunities for district intervention to mitigate any negative effects of competition. This analysis suggests several directions for further research. Research in other settings is needed. New Orleans is a “critical” case that helps to illuminate the process of competition, but it is necessary to examine how school leaders in districts with more moderate school-choice policies compete. Because marketing was so common, further research might examine the extent to which programs highlighted in marketing materials actually correspond to those within schools. For example, are schools that market themselves as arts-integrated actually incorporating the arts in academic classes? Much of the research on competition to date has examined the effects of competition on student achievement, but we know little about how competition affects equity and diversity in schools. This study shows that cream-skimming practices occur, but future research should systematically examine whether students are being counseled out and to what extent they are being selected (e.g., Zimmer & Guarino, 2013). In addition to examining the extent to which these findings are similar to other districts at various stages of marketization, it would also be worthwhile to examine the different ways in which districts and states regulate market-based reforms with different assignment policies and incentive structures. This could help to design a choice system that is truly accessible and equitable.

Source:  jabbar every kid is money


Huriya Jabbar is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Texas at Austin, and a research associate at the Education Research Alliance–New Orleans at Tulane University. She studies the social and political dimensions of privatization and market-based reforms in education.

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Huriya Jabbar

Profesora Asistente del Departamento de Administración Educativa en la Universidad de Texas, en Austin, e investigadora asociada en la Education Research Alliance–New Orleans en la Universidad de Tulane. Ella estudia las dimensiones sociales y políticas de la privatización y las reformas educativas basadas en el mercado.