Competition and choice in space sharing

Several of the recent articles on the DPS school-sharing proposal feature school representatives voicing their fear over increased “competition.” In doing so they further blur a complex line between competition and choice, which finds that choice (and the resulting specialization) often helps both alternatives.

Competition is generally based in three areas: price, product and service. In business, the companies that offer basic (commodity) products have to compete primarily on price (think gas stations). The companies that offer non-commodities compete on some combination of different products or services. One of the main differences is that demand for most commodity products does not increase with more choice (you don’t buy more gas because there are two stations, although you might if this competition means that gas is cheaper). In contrast, demand for even basic products often increases if the product or service is reasonably different.

The common example of the latter is Starbucks, which took a relatively staid coffee industry, offered new products (skinny caramel soy latte anyone?) and better service (the environment is carefully controlled to be relaxing – while sitting in your comfy armchair, notice the absence of any clocks), and overall coffee sales increased tremendously. Instead of a new Starbucks resulting in the demise of all other coffee shops in proximity, it turns out that it often helps.

Strange as it sounds, the best way to boost sales at your independently owned coffeehouse may just be to have Starbucks move in next-door.

The Starbucks example is one of many; there is an entire school of research and theoryaround the organic tendency of like-minded businesses to “cluster,” and the benefits that this clustering brings. Fear not competition between good products.

Public education is not a commodity product, but defenders of the status quo often act like it is, and assume that a new school will mean the demise of the existing school (and please limit the comments accusing me of saying education is coffee). This is only true if you think public education is a commodity like gas. If you give schools the autonomy and ability to better focus their programs, there is no reason to think you won’t attract more students overall.

The DPS proposal, intelligently done, offers local students and families careful choices that may help multiple schools, and often placed programs together that may actually complement each other. Thus, West High School will share with a Edison, a middle school which, if successful, could easily increase the number of kids at West. Kunsmiller Arts Academy, slated as a K-12, will share with West Denver Prep (where I serve on the Board), which will overlap in middle school years, but which offers a very different standards-based curriculum and program. Smiley, which offers a specific International Baccalaureate program will share with Envision, which features small schools with project-based learning. These schools are no more offering the same educational product than a steakhouse and sushi restaurant are both offering the same food, and it is logical to think that parents will be able to know which program is a better fit for their child.

Increasingly, the idea of a single neighborhood school that is the right fit for all children in its proximity is problematic. No one disputes that kids are different, so why do we force different kids to attend the same school? Some of the best schools and programs in DPS are those that specialize. Somewhat buried in this article on school grades in New York is the statistic that the eight specialized schools within the city all received the highest ranking. It is no coincidence that the two best high schools in DPS, which are located in very close proximity, both specialize: Denver School of the Arts and Denver School of Science and Technology. What choice (and competition) often do for non-commodity products is allow organizations to focus on what they can do well.

When school-sharing opponents argue against “competition”, they are saying that they prefer that students and families not have a local choice. While there is no doubt that it is easier to get kids to come to your school if they have no alternative, there is also no reason to think that a lack of alternatives make schools better, and some reasonable belief that choices help. But what these naysayers often miss is that increased and better school choices will help students choose some form of public education in one of its many evolving flavors.

And the truth is that competition for public schools already exists: private schools for the affluent or gifted; and dropping out altogether for many students who fall behind. This is the competition that more public school choice should be addressing – not the choice of a different public educational program in the same building.

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