Report: The ‘death of public schools’ narrative has been greatly exaggerated

It’s no secret that educational freedom took center stage this year in a number of states as school choice programs were either newly introduced or expanded. The large and growing body of research on competition shows that it does have positive effects on traditional public school achievement.

But what is the extent of actual competition in school districts?

Modest, according to new research from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “…[M]ost of America’s largest districts face only modest competition for students (though there is considerable variation).”

The study seeks to quantify the extent to which competition is occurring by estimating the number of students enrolled in charter, private, and homeschools in each of the nation’s 125 largest school districts in spring 2020 and then dividing that sum by an estimate of a given district’s total student population (which includes students in traditional public schools). The resulting quotient—the report’s measure of the competition facing a district—is the combined market share of all non-district alternatives. While this is not a perfect measure (we can’t account for inter-district open enrollment, for instance), it is as good an estimate as current data allow.

Within the 125 largest districts in the country, the percentage of students in grades 1–8 who were not enrolled in a district-run school in 2020 ranged from 5 percent to 100 percent; however, as Figure 3 illustrates [see below], most large districts face only modest competition.

In most large districts, most students still enroll in district-run schools

This is far from the “death of public school” alarmism raised by opponents of educational choice and competition.

Indeed, for the foreseeable future, the majority of Minnesota students will be educated through the state’s public school system. As I have written here, the “either/or” debate between school choice and traditional public schools is a false dichotomy. School choice offers benefits for students that other options have not been able to produce, and the competition has positive effects on public schools. As Amber Northern and Michael Petrilli with Fordham note: “…[E]mbracing school choice is a valuable strategy for improving traditional public schools.”

Competition in the St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts

For the St. Paul school district, the share of students not enrolled in district-run schools — as of the 2020 data used in the report — was 43 percent, ranking the district number 9 out of 125 large school districts facing the most competition for students in grades 1-8. The Minneapolis school district came in at number 18, with 35 percent of students not enrolled in one of its district-run schools. Both districts have experienced enrollment declines over the past several years, with academic achievement and school safety concerns topping the reasons why families are exiting the districts’ schools.

Indeed, 43 percent of black students, 42 percent of Hispanic students, and 40 percent of non-white students in the Minneapolis school district are not enrolled in a district school, according to the Fordham report, compared to 24 percent of white students. The competitiveness in the district among students of color is driven overwhelmingly by charter schools, whereas competition for white students is driven more by private schools.

Minneapolis Public School District: How competition for students in different racial/ethnic groups has evolved over the years

The St. Paul school district, on the other hand, faces the most competition for white students, with 52 percent not enrolled in one of its district-run schools, and 46 percent of Asian students not enrolled in a district-run school. Similar to the Minneapolis school district, competition for students of color was attributable to charter schools, and private schools for white students.

St. Paul Public School District: How competition for students in different racial/ethnic groups has evolved over the years

According to these findings, ensuring financial barriers are removed — by passing an education savings account policy, a tax-credit scholarship policy, etc. — would help narrow the gap between white and non-white students’ access to non-district, non-public schooling options. For advocates of equal opportunity and better schooling, this should be a top priority in Minnesota K-12 education policy.