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School Choice and Educational Leadership

School leaders bear the brunt of market-driven policies like school choice. In an increasingly competitive education environment with pressures to maintain or increase student enrollment and navigate accountability policies, school leaders must employ strategies that attract families to their schools, many of which have implications for racial equity. For instance, according to Jabbar (2015a), “If schools do not respond to such pressures and improve academics, they risk losing the funding that accompanies each student, and their school might be closed. Schools must therefore compete to survive” (p. 1094). In contexts where school districts are competing with different school choice policies at the same time, this is of particular concern as enrollment can fall and schools may eventually have to shut their doors.

In order to be competitive in the current education marketplace, school leaders must have a working understanding of the market and be able to recognize market pressures. School leaders should be aware of the impacts of school choice (e.g., losing students to charter schools) so they can respond appropriately. In her research of school choice in New Orleans, Jabbar (2015a, 2015b) found that the characteristics of a school leader as well as their perceptions and understanding of the marketplace play a critical role in the school choice process. That is, the strategies they chose to employ in the marketplace were impacted by their perceptions of their school’s position in the marketplace hierarchy and the level of competition for their school. These findings support research by Jennings (2010) who found that principals’ biographies and how they made sense of accountability systems and school choice play a critical role in student admissions. Additionally, Turner’s (2018) research on how race and context influence school districts’ marketing decisions shows that strategies taken to attract families to schools were also heavily influenced by how they viewed themselves in the marketplace. It is therefore important to understand how school leaders are perceiving competition, as they are ultimately the ones that implement school choice policies, as well as to understand the local context and who are thought of as “rivals” in the marketplace (Jabbar, 2015a).

We also argue that school leaders need to be cognizant of the role of race in the marketplace and how school choice and race are intertwined and impact leaders’ strategies and responses. Turner (2018) explores the racialization of competition and marketing in her research and finds that when school district leaders engage in strategies to market racial diversity as a way to attract families to their schools, this is often done in order to attract and maintain affluent and middle-class white families. Specifically, school leaders were “selling” the idea of how white students would accumulate more capital by being in schools with students of color suggesting “that the representations and presence of people of color can come to be seen as valuable in a White dominated society while nonetheless reifying whiteness, creating new privileges for upper- and middle-class White children...” (Turner, 2018, p. 20). In turn, this selling of diversity may result in schools perhaps being more diverse but it does nothing to address the racialized marketplace in which these strategies are employed.

School Choice Plans That Center Race and Racial Equity

School leaders “are expected to be the key drivers of competitive strategies in a decentralized choice setting” (Jabbar, 2015a, p. 1101). At the same time, they also need to make sure that whatever strategies they are implementing are racially conscious, inclusive, and less competitive, if we truly seek to create racially diverse schools. Yet, not all school leaders are aware of the strategies that can work to this end and make them competitive in the marketplace. We offer a few examples of school choice options available to school leaders that center race and racial equity that we believe, when implemented appropriately, can lead to more equitable educational opportunities for all students. It is important to note that in all of the examples we discuss, it is never enough to think that “diversifying” schools and placing Black, Brown, and white students in the same building is the magic bullet to achieving racial equity. We must also continuously invest resources in communities and support the cultural assets students bring with them to the classroom every day. Perhaps had we supported the strengths of Black schools prior to desegregation efforts, our education system might currently be in a very different place.

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