Denver Public Schools’ recent decision to have different schools share buildings provoked fearful cries of “increased competition” among some neighborhood advocates. But these objections blur the important distinction between competition and choice.
While unfettered competition could well have a negative impact on public education, managed choice (and the resulting academic specialization) can benefit everyone.
Organizations that offer commodity products compete primarily on price (think gas stations). Those that offer non-commodities compete by having different products or services. Public education is not a commodity product, but defenders of the status quo often act like it is, and assume that adding a second school to a half-full building can only mean the demise of the original school.
That assumption is unfounded. Demand for commodity products does not increase with more choice (i.e., one does not buy more gas because there are two stations). But demand often increases for products that are reasonably distinct, even if they are located right next door.
If, within a single building, one gives different schools the autonomy and ability to better focus their academic programs, there is no reason to think they won’t both attract more students and do a better job helping them learn.
The common example of this differentiation in business is Starbucks, which took an industry with a single bland offering and both introduced new products (skinny caramel soy latte, anyone?) and provided better service. Surprisingly, instead of a new Starbucks resulting in the demise of all nearby coffee shops as once feared, it often helps them. According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, from 2000 to 2005, in the midst of Starbucks’ period of rapid growth, the number of independent coffeehouses grew 40 percent.
This phenomenon is not limited to business. There is a large body of research on the tendency of like-minded organizations to “cluster” and the benefits that clustering brings. In industries as varied as textiles, medical research and the visual arts, similar organizations in close proximity see increases in both innovation and productivity.
Of course, public education is not coffee. Opening a public school requires significant planning and a lengthy application process carefully vetted by both DPS and the Board of Education with considerable community input. Any competition is carefully weighed among different factions, and Colorado’s school choice law ensures that there is no centralized planning such that students are required to attend a specific school. Increasingly, the role of public school boards includes the approval and oversight of new schools, a process DPS manages increasingly well.
What DPS has achieved through the decision to share school buildings is the ability to offer students and families carefully placed educational choices that can help all schools, placing programs together that often complement each other or allow each to focus on their strengths. Thus, West High School will share with Edison, a middle school that could easily increase the number and academic preparation of kids eventually attending West. Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, slated as a K-12 integrated arts school, will share a facility with sixth- to eighth-grade West Denver Prep, which overlaps in middle school years but will offer a different, highly structured curriculum and culture.
Smiley Middle School, with a specific International Baccalaureate program, will share with a new Envision school that features project-based learning. An elementary school run by the Denver teachers union will share with a high school expansion from the nationally successful Knowledge is Power Program.
Managed choice is important because there is no single school model that works for all kids. Increasingly, the idea of a single school that is the right fit for every child in a neighborhood is problematic. No one disputes that kids can be vastly different, so why do we demand that different kids attend only one local school?
Having different schools in close proximity allows each the option to specialize. New York City recently graded its public schools, and the eight specialized schools within the city all received the highest ranking. It is likewise no coincidence that the two best high schools in DPS — located less than a mile apart — are both highly focused: Denver School of the Arts and Denver School of Science and Technology.
When opponents decry “competition” in shared buildings, they overlook the benefits: Increased and better school choices will help more of Denver’s families choose some form of public education in one of its evolving flavors. And the truth is that competition for public schools already exists in private schools or in dropping out altogether. This is the competition that public school advocates should fear most — not the choice of a different educational program in the same building.
Originally published in the Denver Post on Sunday, December 14, 2008