Competition Among Schools Is Healthy, Especially in a Pandemic | Opinion

With so many public school districts starting the year with 100 percent remote learning, parents are scrambling. Driven by economic necessity or desperation for quality educational options, untold numbers of parents are looking for in-person learning options wherever they can find a spot: from private and charter schools to the learning pods that have sprung up this fall. But in some school districts, the resulting competition to keep these families enrolled is not sitting well.

Last month, Denver's board of education released a statement pleading with its parents: "Stay enrolled in your school!" Their message insisted that their schools are best for children, and that keeping kids enrolled "helps ensure [their] schools have the desperately needed resources to meet the needs of [their] students and community." Also, "For every student who un-enrolls, the district loses approximately $10,600."

It's hard to believe such pleas will work, in Denver or elsewhere, while families are desperate for in-person alternatives—as they are now. What's more, it shouldn't work, because it's an effort to escape healthy competitive pressures to meet the needs of families—pressures that repeatedly surfaced in my discussions with numerous private, charter and public school superintendents this summer. In varied contexts, the threat of families "voting with their feet" pushed districts to keep the needs of their families in front of the loudest voices alarmed about the COVID-19 threat.

Competition, or its absence, can shape the reopening calculus. In districts where families have few choices, where charter schools are unavailable or full, private schools are unaffordable or pods are impractical, families are totally reliant on the plans of their traditional neighborhood schools. In such districts, competition hardly registers in school leaders' decision-making. Without choices, parents clamoring for open schools cannot hold district leaders' feet to the fire to reopen quickly, and their voices can be drowned out by more alarmist ones.

"My blood is on your hands!" and "Do you want me to die?" are real messages teachers I interviewed this summer sent to superintendents. Those outlandish messages reflect valid safety concerns of teachers—but with no counterbalance, they can amplify and exaggerate the health risks superintendents have to weigh. Public health officials can also push a one-sided view. When asked, "Who is really in charge of reopening schools?," one superintendent responded, "I would say the health officer because he's a 'the sky is falling' person. When I want to say, 'Let's close,' I call him because he'll say close until 2025." Some parents report fearing reopening, but several superintendents said they tended to be two-income families better able to cope with closed schools and to make their voices heard. When faced with a chorus echoing "safety first," superintendents find averting risk and asking parents looking for open schools to trust and wait to be the easy path.

In contrast, superintendents of tuition-dependent private schools feel competitive pressures acutely. As one put it, "if I don't open face-to-face five days a week, people aren't going to pay to come to a Catholic school." Remote private schools face losing students when remote public school is available for free, and many have already had to close for good. Reopening in-person can be doubly good for private schools, stemming their losses and giving them a chance to grow their enrollments when public schools go remote.

Remote learning in Chicago public schools
Remote learning in Chicago public schools Scott Olson/Getty Images

If this raises lazy stereotypes of private school profiteers, don't buy into them. Far from ritzy private schools for the wealthy, the private school superintendents I spoke to lead mission-driven organizations—and they all described their main struggle as figuring out how to reopen safely, keenly aware that such a safe reopening was the only viable path forward. A virus outbreak would disrupt the instruction they owe families in the short term, and harm their reputations in the long term. The first challenge these schools faced was retooling facilities and operations to ensure a safe return; the second was convincing teachers and parents that safety precautions would be effective, especially with neighboring public schools saying a safe reopening was impossible.

Of course, many public school district superintendents also face real competitive pressures, historically from private schools or charter schools, and now from pandemic learning pods. That competition pushes superintendents to pursue risk management, rather than risk aversion. And when parents have options, it animates their calls to reopen, forcing leaders to balance those views with the "sky is falling" contingent. In one superintendent's words, "the safest environment is to go all remote. But if the district right next to you provides instruction, you've got a huge revenue loss to contend with."

Ultimately, all superintendents, public and private, face the same challenge in this pandemic. Everyone I spoke with recognized the health and safety concerns that make remote learning a safer and easier option, but they also recognized the heavy educational losses and pressing family needs that require schools to reopen. Their challenge is to provide the best remote learning possible while schools have to be closed, and to reopen schools as soon as is prudently possible. But what passes for prudence is significantly shaped by whose voices get amplified.

Keeping competition at bay could give cover for school leaders seeking a path of risk aversion but, at least in Denver, competitive forces are part of a push toward managing risks that is bringing students back to school buildings ahead of schedule. Last week, Superintendent Susana Cordova informed teachers that the city's youngest students would return weeks earlier than planned, "based on ongoing feedback we've received from our teachers, leaders, families and larger community." When competitive pressures animate the voices of families that would be squelched without them and force more district leaders into the balanced risk management glimpsed in Denver, we should all be supportive.

Nat Malkus is a resident scholar in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.