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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.

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How Have New Orleans' Charter-Based School Reforms Affected Pre-Kindergarten?

by Lindsay Bell Weixler, Jane Arnold Lincove, Alica Gerry

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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.

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