While the public school lobby has traditionally opposed any introduction of competition into the education system, the state’s largest school district seems to have embraced it.

In Houston, 80 state-authorized charter schools enroll approximately 20,000 students. That’s one charter student for every 10 students in the Houston Independent School District (HISD). Few school districts in the country face this degree of competition-and even fewer have risen to the challenge like HISD.

At a recent forum hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, HISD Chief Academic Officer Dr. Karen Soehnge emphasized that “we fundamentally, as an organization, embrace choice.” That’s not something you typically hear from a public school administrator. But HISD has responded to competition by maximizing choice within the public school system.

In HISD, students can choose to attend any school where space is available. Campus funding is based on enrollment – if a school doesn’t compete to keep students, it loses the dollars that go with them. And students have a wide variety of learning environments from which to choose, since HISD has created specialized magnet schools and virtual courses that maximize student flexibility.

HISD has also responded by establishing a network of district-authorized charter schools. Today, 29 district charters enroll approximately 11,000 students. By comparison, the state as a whole only contains 54 district charters, meaning more than half of the state’s district charters are in HISD.

What are the results of this movement toward choice? In 2005, HISD had 31 campuses rated unacceptable, and only six rated exemplary. In 2007, the district had 15 of each. For its size, Houston has half as many unacceptable schools as either Fort Worth or Dallas, and fewer even than Austin, a property-rich district.

A study by the Texas Public Policy Foundation found that traditional public schools facing competition from charters outperform those public schools that do not face competition. HISD provides concrete proof to support this unsurprising finding.

It is no coincidence that HISD, with its significant charter competition, is one of the most innovative urban districts in the country. If charter schools were allowed to expand more freely throughout the state, other Texas districts might be motivated to undertake similar reforms in response to competition from charters. Unfortunately, a legislative limit on the number of state-authorized charters has hampered the effects of competition.

But despite this limitation, school districts are still within their power to increase student choice. Charters authorized by school districts and universities do not fall under the state mandated cap, so district charters can proliferate elsewhere like they have in Houston.

Even more importantly, parents have the power to demand choice within their children’s districts. According to a little-known portion of the education code, the majority of parents and teachers of an existing public school may petition their school board to grant a charter to the campus. While the school board is not required to honor the petition, they are not allowed to arbitrarily deny the request either. To date, this authorization option has not been utilized by parents and teachers, but it holds great promise for increasing parental choice within the public school system.

“We are not threatened at all by competition,” Dr. Soehnge said at the TPPF forum. When more Texas school districts adopt that same attitude and embrace choice, parent satisfaction and student performance will soar.

Jamie Story is an education policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.