How Parents Experience School Choice

CRPE just put out a great report on school choice. This type of research is invaluable and hopefully more will follow. CRPE surveyed 4,000 parents across Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

See below for some data highlights, some reflections, and my overall summary.

Data Highlights

1. % of Parents Believing that Schools are Improving

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2. % of Parents that Choose a School Based on Academic Quality 

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3. % of Parents Choosing Non-neighborhood School 

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4. % of Parents Choosing Non-neighborhood schools (by Parent Education)

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5. % of Parents Satisfied with their Schools

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6. % of Parents Having Trouble Finding a School that Fits 

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7. % of Parents of Students with Special Needs Having Trouble Finding a Good Fit 

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8. City Investment in Choice Infrastructure

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1. Parents are in General Agreement with Reformers

If you polled you’re average reformer on which cities of these eight are most improving, I’m confident New Orleans, Washington D.C., and Denver would top the list. As it happens, these cities had the highest parent confidence ratings. I’m fairly convinced that, when well executed, the reform agenda and the parent agenda are aligned. Of course, cities such as Detroit prove that the reform agenda, when poorly executed, can lead to poor outcomes.

2. Most Parents Make Choices Based on Academic Quality

This, in my mind, is an additional reason to give parents clear information – preferably in letter grade format – about the academic quality of their schools. It is also worth noting that the most improving school districts have the highest percentage of parents selecting based on academics; this makes sense in a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs framework. Safety is perhaps a more important concern in more dysfunctional systems.

3. Parents Seem to Care More about Academic Quality than Neighborhood Proximity 

I’ve written before on why I think neighborhood schools are more bad than good, at least when enrollment takes place exclusively by neighborhood zoning. Parents seem to implicitly agree: in most cities, over a majority of parents send their children to a non-neighborhood school. Of course, I imagine most parents would love to send their children to an excellent school down the street, but to the extent that school doesn’t yet exist (and hasn’t for twenty years), they will send their child to a better school that is further away.

4. Enrollment Systems Can Have Bigger Effect on Parental Choice than Parent Education Levels 

Overall, more educated parents are more active choosers. However, you’ll notice that in New Orleans, parents without a high school degree are more active choosers than parents with a college degree in every other city! Sound regulation – in this case New Orleans’ OneApp enrollment system – goes a very, very long way.

5. Nearly All Parents Report Being Satisfied with Their Schools

This is the case with most surveys.

6. Parent Ability to Find a Good Fit Seems to be in Part a Function of Expectations and Opportunity 

Interestingly enough, parents in New Orleans, Denver, and Washington D.C., reported having more trouble finding a school that fit their needs than did parents in Cleveland and Indianapolis. I imagine that this is, in part, due to increased expectations and choice. When your school system is getting better, and you can access a lot of choices, perhaps you become a more selective chooser. Of course, this is also an indication that none of the cities have enough great schools.

7. Parents with Students with Special Needs

I have previously written that New Orleans is on its way to becoming the most equitable urban education system in the nation. You’ll notice that, on the issue of finding a good fit, in most cities there is a ~10% spread between parents of students with and without special needs. In New Orleans, there is basically no gap.

8. Investment in Choice Infrastructure is Correlated to Parent Perception of Improvement

The cities that have invested the most in choice (New Orleans, Washington D.C., and Denver) are also the three cities with the highest percentage of parents believing that the schools are improving.

In Sum

Parents exercise choice when it’s made readily accessible. Parents make school choices based on academic quality. Many parents don’t think there’s enough good schools in their city.

Sounds about right.

The revealed preferences of parents continue to demolish the arguments for systems structured predominantly around neighborhood schools.

2 thoughts on “How Parents Experience School Choice

  1. Mike G

    Can you distinguish among NOLA, Denver and DC here?

    Ie, I’m assuming if parents say “Schools are improving” in NOLA they mean “charters” cuz it’s almost all charters.

    In Denver, I am guessing it’s more “The district schools are improving”….because charters there expanding but not huge. Is that right?

    And in DC, I can’t tell. Is the parent saying/thinking “District schools under Rhee/Henderson are better” (Denver story) or “My options keep increasing in terms of good charter schools” (NOLA)?

    1. nkingsl

      My take is you’re right about NOLA and Denver.

      And in DC my take is probably an “and” – parents in both sectors are seeing improvement….


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