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New Charter School Study Suggests Marketing Trumps Academics


A new study is out – and it’s focused on America’s charter school petri dish, New Orleans. It shows that the charter schools there are more focused on marketing and advertising themselves, rather classroom performance. KERA’s Bill Zeeble reports on what the research, from the University of Texas and Tulane, could mean for charters in North Texas.

Of the nearly 90 public schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, all but a handful are now charters. There’s no place like it anywhere.   The study from the Education Research Alliance – the ERA - in New Orleans, focused on 30 campuses where researchers talked with the school leaders. Lead researcher Huriya Jabbar, with UT Austin, says the charter movement was founded on  an open market approach, designed to improve schools through competition. But she says that’s not what’s happened.

“While some schools engage in academic improvements, many more engaged in kind of either superficial strategies such as marketing that doesn’t generate substantive changes, and then 1/3 of the schools selected or excluded students,” Jabbar says.

That way, adds Jabbar, schools hope to enroll better performing kids. They’re not supposed to cherry pick that way. Doug Harris runs the ERA at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“It reinforces the importance of the role of some sort of government agency to be involved. A completely free wheeling market is probably not going to get us what we want,” Harris says.

Jabbar says New Orleans charter schools are dealing with competing interests. They’re fighting to attract kids and fighting for them to test well so they keep their charter. That sounds a lot like Texas, where some local charters, like Prime Prep and Honors Academy, recently closed. Jabbar likes a brand new reform launched in New Orleans after her study. It creates a centralized enrollment approach. Parents list their school choices in descending order and submit them to school officials. Using objective criteria, this central authority then assigns a school.  

“When Schools can’t directly enroll, since when they’re assigned centrally, they can’t screen out particular types of students as easily,” Jabbar says. “So that’s one thing I think would be really important in Texas, in cities like Dallas, rather than having parents go to each school. It helps give equal access.”

With Jabbar in UT Austin’s Education Department, she’s hoping to do charter school research here in Texas, where the student population keeps growing along with the number of charter schools.  More than 40,000 new students are being served by Texas charter schools this school year alone.