When Schools Compete

Does school choice push public schools to improve?
Illustration by Dave Black

For competition to fulfill its promise as a reform strategy, traditional public schools must feel challenged. The officials who run the schools and the teachers who helm the classrooms must feel as if their jobs and per-quisites are in jeopardy if they fail to stem enrollment losses to independent charter and private schools. So far, few states and cities have nurtured such a vigorous, elastic competitive environment. States often cap the number of charter schools allowed to open each year. Those that do open are rarely funded at a level that would allow them to provide the sorts of facilities, like up-to-date science labs and sports fields, that public schools regularly supply. Voucher programs that enable students to attend private schools in Milwaukee and Cleveland are severely underfunded and under constant attack in the courts and state legislatures. Yet, in some school districts, signs of a public school renewal are beginning to appear. To attract students, public schools are promoting their wares, altering their curriculum, and producing higher test scores. Even a watered-down version of competition seems to encourage some public schools to improve.

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