School Choice, It’s Common Sense?

This blog series, “School Choice, It’s Common Sense?” serves as a counterstory to the current dominant narrative of school choice and neoliberal privatization. Each installment will introduce critical concepts currently being debated in education policy. The series is taken from personal field research conducted over the past two years. Ultimately, the goal of this work is to stimulate a more inclusive dialogue and depict the significance of a democratically run public school board’s expulsion of a privately owned in-district charter school following public pressure and community organizing.
Making the Case:
Overall student achievement is stagnant over the past four years in states like Texas (Weiss, 2015). Urban school districts are increasingly partnering with charter school networks to build their portfolio of schools in the name of meeting accountability measures and improving public education (Levin, 2011). This is observable in urban settings in Texas; therefore understanding how funds are actually being spent is important. In particular, this series will examine one site in Austin ISD, Eastside Memorial High School and the efforts by IDEA Public Charter School and East Austin College Prep to occupy the campus through in-district charters.

Charter schools often adopt similar curriculum and pedagogical practices as traditional public schools thus garnering institutional legitimacy which can act to limit differentiation (Huerta, & Zuckerman, 2009). Wholstetter et al. (2013) cite Christensen and Rainey in asserting charters, through focusing on differentiating themselves, were not innovating new programs as much as repackaging what already existed. Analyzing public school responses to new practices such as marketing demonstrates how public schools are simultaneously adopting business strategies in response to increased market pressures. The diversion of public funds from instruction to private media companies and marketing consultants is an overlooked topic, often overshadowed by discussions on efficiency and achievement. Critically examining the isomorphic tendencies of both public and private governance structures, we begin to tease out substantive from inessential changes (Lubienski, & Lee, 2016).

The current political climate begs the question, why are charter schools able to increase enrollment, further legitimizing the policies promoting their expansion without demonstrating a significant improvement in student outcomes? I argue, one way charter schools are growing is through marketing, advertising, and public relations. Also, charter schools often appeal to notions of good sense including equity, efficiency, and innovation. Finally, their advocacy by way of presidential authority, extends from George H. W. Bush to Barrack Obama and the new policy networks shaping legislation (Frankenberg, & Siegel-Hawley, 2013; Anderson, & Donchik 2014). One question, relevant to the scope of this research, posed by Kahlenberg and Potter (2014) is whether or not charter schools cooperate or compete with regular public schools? Marketing and advertising are one overt way schools compete for students.

The debate in this country about whether the public school, or common school as it was known back in its day, should be treated as a public or private good, spans over a quarter century (Mann, 1848). Scholars provide several frameworks to evaluate the intent and efficacy of education policy (Labaree, 1997; Jencks, 1988). In research conducted for my MA Thesis I coded twenty-four interviews which asked how participants felt about spending public dollars on advertising, and the results were mixed. Some saw it as common sense considering the return on their investment in terms of increasing enrollment, while others perceived this type of spending to be a waste of finite resources in a climate of scarcity and austerity. Another group endorsed their use enthusiastically.
The availability of the information regarding marketing expenditures for the Austin Independent School District (AISD), IDEA Public Charter School (IDEA), and East Austin College Prep (EACP) can all be found on the Texas Education Agency (TEA) website. However, there is a lack of uniformity in their filings which is one barrier to accurately measure expenditures which should be addressed in policy with the intent of more easily disseminating the information. Before perceptions can be analyzed we need an accurate picture of actual expenditures in order to improve our understanding of context (Cucchiara, 2016). Figure 1 contains the three most recent years of available data for each school.

Figure 2 depicts these expenditures in terms of per pupil expenses.


The figures above indicate that marketing expenditures are increasing over time. Examining enrollment patterns demonstrate growth for IDEA during this time frame and declining enrollment for AISD and EACP. The decision by AISD to begin formal marketing in 2015 indicates that democratically run public schools are in this case adopting the strategies of the competition in order to recapture students. Increasing competition for students and their accompanying average daily attendance funding play a marked role in shaping school behavior during an age of austerity.
The next installment will trace the history of Johnston High School culminating in the Austin ISD School Boards Decision to partner with IDEA Public School in 2012.
(References are available upon request)