The Provision of Public Pre-K in the Absence of Centralized School Management
*Names in bold indicate Presenter
In this study, we investigate how the growth of charter schools in a district affects the supply of optional services by examining the changing supply of pre-kindergarten classes (pre-k) in New Orleans as the district transitioned from a centralized system to one dominated by independently managed charters. Louisiana school districts and charter schools can opt into offering state-subsidized pre-k. Subsidies are available only for low-income and special-needs students, and the per pupil subsidy level is far below the average cost of a pre-k student. In this setting, charter school pre-k will be offered only where operators perceive a benefit that exceeds the gap between average cost and state subsidies. In this study, we explore two research questions related to pre-k in a decentralized system: Has decentralization limited or expanded public pre-k offerings? And do schools incur a competitive advantage by offering pre-k?
First, we use public school enrollment data from the Louisiana Department of Education from 2000-01 through 2012-13 to identify the number of pre-k slots allocated to each district in each year and the number of students enrolled, adjusting for demographic shifts that took place as a result of Hurricane Katrina. We next explore the motivation for charter schools to provide pre-k in a system of school choice by estimating the effects of providing pre-k on schools’ student demographics, retention, and performance.
Preliminary results suggest that the transition of public schools to private charter management was accompanied by significant reductions in total pre-k enrollment relative to kindergarten enrollment in New Orleans. This is not explained by statewide or local trends, as the total allocation of pre-k subsidies to New Orleans remained constant, the local supply of private pre-k remained stable, and public pre-k was expanding statewide. Instead, these results suggest that schools under charter management were less likely to use their allocated pre-k subsidies. At the same time, a handful of New Orleans charter schools were adding pre-k slots through both subsidies and parent tuition. We find that students who enroll in pre-k at these schools have lower transfer rates in early elementary grades and higher third-grade test scores than students who enroll in kindergarten at a school with or without pre-k, suggesting that in this school-choice setting, offering pre-k is a competitive strategy for charter schools to improve recruitment, retention, and performance on state tests.