How Have New Orleans' Charter-Based School Reforms Affected Pre-Kindergarten?
A policy brief by Lindsay Bell Weixler, Jane Arnold Lincove, and Alica Gerry on how the growth of charter schools in New Orleans affected pre-kindergarten (pre-K) program offerings.
In this study, we examine how the growth of charter schools in New Orleans affected pre-kindergarten (pre‑K) program offerings as the school system transitioned from a centralized school system to an almost-all-charter district. In Louisiana, charter schools can opt into offering state subsidized pre‑K for low-income and special-needs students, but the per pupil funding level is far below the average cost of educating a pre‑K student. In New Orleans’ decentralized setting, schools offering pre‑K must cover this funding gap from other sources of revenue.
School districts and charter schools have different incentives for offering optional educational services, such as pre‑K. In order to better understand school-level decision making, we interviewed school leaders about their reasons for offering or not offering pre‑K. We also analyzed data from 2007 to 2015 to determine whether charter schools that offer pre‑K programs gain a competitive advantage over those that do not. Our key findings are:
- After the reforms, the number of schools offering pre‑K and the number of school-based pre‑K seats dropped, even after accounting for drops in kindergarten enrollment. The decrease in seats occurred primarily in charter schools.
- At charter schools that continued to offer pre‑K after Katrina, school leaders offered two school-centered motivations – pursuit of higher test scores and early recruitment of families committed to sticking with the school for the long-run – in addition to more mission-focused commitments to providing early education for the benefit of students and the community.
- Through analyses of student test scores from 2012 to 2015, we find that offering pre‑K had no measurable effect on charter schools’ third grade math or ELA test scores, potentially as a result of high student mobility between pre‑K and third grade.
- Charter schools that offered pre‑K programs saw short-term, but not long-term, enrollment benefits. On average, charter schools with pre‑K filled half of their kindergarten seats with existing pre‑K students, whereas schools that did not offer these programs had to fill all kindergarten seats with new students. However, charter schools offering pre‑K did not have any advantage in persistent student enrollment after kindergarten.
It is important to emphasize that our results do not speak to the important and cost-effective benefits of pre‑K for students, as those have been well established in prior research. Rather, the study is meant to show how charter-based reforms influence how and why pre‑K and other optional educational programs are offered in almost-all-charter systems. While we discuss below new efforts to address the shortfall of pre‑K seats, our study provides initial evidence that decentralization without offsetting financial incentives can lead to reduced investments in programs that advance the broader social goals of public education.