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The Rising Tide: School Choice and Competition in Post-Katrina New Orleans


During the past several decades, policymakers have introduced market mechanisms of choice and competition into the education sector. In districts with school choice, school leaders are expected to respond to market pressures that arise through either declining enrollments or the presence of nearby schools by working to improve efficiency and the effectiveness of instruction. Choice is intended to be a "tide that lifts all boats," benefiting not only the students who chose their schools, but also all the other students in the district, through the mechanism of competition. Yet there remain significant gaps in our knowledge about how market pressures actually shape socially and politically embedded education markets. In particular, we do not understand whether and how school leaders identify competitors or how they experience competition within different regulatory environments.

This study examines how the expansion of school choice informs school-level actions. I investigate the claim that school choice is a "rising tide" that generates system-wide school improvement. I draw on theoretical tools from sociology and politics to deepen our knowledge of how neoclassical ideas of competition from economics operate in education markets. I use concepts in economic sociology and political economy, which treat economic worlds as social and political worlds, to examine how competition occurs. Unlike previous studies that have examined the overall effects of competition, which has been measured using geographic distance, density, or student transfers between schools, this study measures competition using school leaders' perceptions: the schools they actually name as competitors rather than those with whom we would simply expect them to compete. In doing so, this study contributes to our understanding of the process and mechanisms by which competition influences school leaders' behaviors.

By focusing on New Orleans, the school system that most resembles a true market in the U.S., I study market processes in education under nearly ideal conditions. Using multiple methods, including qualitative case study, network analysis, and statistical analysis of network data, I explore: (a) the perceptions and behaviors of school leaders in a competitive environment, and (b) the regulatory frameworks that shape this market environment. I draw on survey data from 89 school leaders (a 91% response rate) in New Orleans, case studies of 30 of these schools, and administrative data.

The first findings chapter reveals the factors that predict the formation of competitive ties between schools using social-selection models suited to the statistical analysis of network data, which must contend with the non-independence of observations. While factors that economists believe to be important for competition, including geography and student transfers, mattered for whom school leaders identify as competitors, these factors did not fully explain how school leaders in New Orleans perceived competition. Other factors, such as charter brand, school similarity, demographics, and the characteristics of school leaders, also influenced competition. The second and third findings chapters explore how a school's position in a district-wide social network of competitors, and its status in the market hierarchy, mediated its experiences and responses to competition. School leaders in New Orleans have experienced especially strong market pressures, yet their responses to such pressures sometimes reinforced inequities in an already tiered marketplace, with particularly harmful consequences for the most under-served students. The last findings chapter examines how schools' political contexts, including regulations and tensions at the community level, affected school leaders' capacities to respond to competitive pressures, both alleviating and exacerbating educational inequities. This analysis implies several directions for education policy and future research.

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