Competition in San Antonio

A common argument among school choice advocates is choice creates competition and changes the incentives for public schools to offer high-quality instruction. As a result, performance improves at previously poor-performing schools. Those against choice often point out that creating competition could create loss of student enrollment in assigned schools, meaning loss of per student funding to the school district. Interestingly enough, a recent article in The Texas Tribune chronicles this type of occurrence in a San Antonio district, recording how competition affected schools when families are offered more choice.

Isabel Nava, a long-time bilingual teacher at Lamar Elementary, recounted the beginning of her 18th year of teaching, what happened to the enrollment, and how the school responded to the competition of choice. For years, she and her colleagues watched enrollment drop, and it felt like the school was on the verge of shutdown.

Then, Brian Sparks, came on board as the acting principal. Sparks recognized that, to survive, the school would have to improve to keep up with other options available to families. Lamar then partnered with Trinity University instructors to revitalize the curriculum, focus on project-based learning, extend the school year, and set aside time each school day for teachers to help develop students’ social and emotional skills. A successful dual-language program was also implemented, and soon, those efforts began to attract families from all over San Antonio and boosted enrollment.

The Texas Tribune describes Nava’s reaction to the first day of school writing,

She choked up remembering the first day of school after Lamar’s transformation, when school staff had unrolled a red carpet at the entrance to welcome students back. “Everybody was outside with balloons. The children were entering the school through every doorway,” Nava said through tears. “That was my dream.”

Now that enrollment is growing again at Lamar and teachers like Nava are staying longer, Sparks is working on overhauling another San Antonio school, Bowden. In the fall, he hosted a meeting for Bowden parents to explain the new structure and then ask for their input,“We need your feedback to figure out what you love about our school and how we could make it better.”

So, what is the plan he’s describing? The Texas Tribune explained the blueprint for drawing families back to the public schools in this way:

They’re redesigning [schools] by offering popular education programs… meant to serve as bait for families who otherwise might be paying for those offerings at private schools.

The plan serves as a way to integrate some schools in what has historically been a majority Hispanic district by bringing students with vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds together in the same classrooms, an approach that is known to improve academic performance and overall life outcomes. It also is intended to cut down the number of schools in poor neighborhoods that have been low-performing for years.

Instead of responding by blaming other public or private schools in other areas for their loss of enrollment or even blaming parents for wanting something better for their children, Sparks is taking a hard look at schools that have been low-performing for years, asking, “How can we grow enrollment, bringing students and dollars back into this system?” Sure, the innovations may take time and partnerships like private donors and nonprofits in the beginning, but he sees the improvements as an investment in the future of San Antonio’s public school system.

Ultimately, choice has pushed the San Antonio school system to work hard to improve what they’re offering to every kind of student. And, in a place that once had teacher shortages even while enrollments were falling, now they see teachers like Nava taking on new initiatives and staying longer. It’s hard to argue that choice is really “harming” anyone - students, teachers, etc. - when these school environments are improving both enrollment and teacher retention along with the other benefits.

So, is competition really that bad for public schools? San Antonio teachers and families don’t seem to think so.