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Education | Expert Opinion

Parents prefer academics over sports in Texas public schools

Enrollment decline will continue if district leaders prioritize athletics, research shows.

By Vikas Mittal, originally published by the Dallas Morning News.

Opinion by Professor Vikas Mittal

Referring to the 1.2 million students lost by public schools to private and charter schools and homeschooling, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona declared in September 2023: “Public schools are approaching a ‘make or break’ moment.”

Texas public schools are following suit. From 2021-22 Texas public schools reported a 2.9% enrollment decline while Texas charter schools saw an 8.6% increase, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Many public school leaders are betting on sports to increase enrollments. They believe sports can stem enrollment declines by engaging students and families and galvanizing communities. Under an anonymity agreement, a principal of an underperforming school in the Houston area stated to a group of researchers: “Our community really values sports. We are going ‘all in’ on sports. It’s the best way to attract families traumatized by COVID-19.”

Research shows that physical activity has a small and positive association with academic achievement. Seizing on such results, school and district leaders become increasingly fixated on sports as a way to ameliorate academic underperformance.

It doesn’t. It ensnares unwitting teachers and students in a vicious cycle of declining academic performance.

Take the example of Baltimore City Public Schools. In ten of its high schools, no student tested proficient in math. Yet, they reported that students participating in sports all four years of high school had a graduation rate of 98.5% compared to a 62.9% graduation rate for students who did not participate in one sport or another. The district’s enrollment declined by 1,812 students in 2022-23. With $16,000 spent per pupil, this represented a loss of $28.9 million — or more than 450 teachers at the district’s average salary of $61,000!

When schools and districts prioritize sports over academics, dissatisfied parents opt for competitors — neighboring districts, private schools, charters, online academies and homeschooling.

The Parent Voice Study is a nationally representative online survey of 10,759 parents conducted from Nov. 2022 to Oct. 2023. Each parent agreed or disagreed with two statements: (1) I prefer a school that has a strong sports program even if it is weak in academics; and (2) I prefer a school that has strong academics even if it has a weak sports program.

Parents were twice as likely to prefer schools with strong academics relative to schools with strong sports. Specifically, 68% agreed they prefer schools with stronger academics, while only 34% agreed they prefer schools with stronger sports.

This strong support for academics over sports persisted among parents whose children qualify for free and reduced lunch (they were 1.6 times more likely to prefer strong academics), among Black parents (1.7 times), Hispanic/Latino parents (1.8 times) and Caucasian parents (2.2 times). Parents with kids in public schools (2.3 times), charter schools (2.3 times), and homeschoolers (1.9 times)prefer schools with strong academics over sports. In summary, parents from all walks of life prefer schools with strong academics even if they have weak sports programs.

The strategic implications are clear. To succeed, Texas public school leaders’strategy should single-mindedly strive to excel in satisfying parents’ mostimportant need: academics. This does not mean abandoning sports.

It means Texas public schools need a clear-eyed and undiluted focus on strong academics to satisfy students and parents. And satisfying parents is the best and most reliable way to grow any public school and strengthen school districts.

Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. He is also the co-author of the book FOCUS: How to Plan Strategy and Improve Execution to Achieve Growth.

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