Families in Washington D.C. are conflicted between what works and what they want to work

How do you figure out what parents want? 

There are two primary ways to figure out what families want from schools:

  1. Ask them what they want;
  2. Or observe what decisions they make.

The Washington D.C. Auditor’s office just released a public opinion report using the former method (asking families). Washington D.C. has a unified enrollment system where you can track what decisions parents are actually making. I wish this report would have used this data as well (like this report did in New Orleans). But despite this flaw, the opinion research is telling.

Families in D.C. are conflicted between what works and what they want to work 

D.C. families had the following preferences:

  1. School preference: Families say they value educator and academic quality much more than a school being close to home.
  2. School type preference: Families prefer charter schools over their local neighborhood school.
  3. Policy preference: Families want to invest more in neighborhood schools rather than giving more parents chance to opt into a charter or out of boundary traditional school.

Putting this together: families want public schools with great educators and challenging academics; they think charters schools are more likely to provide this; but they want more money put into neighborhood schools.

Of course, this on average. No doubt there is immense diversity in opinion across families.

Why do many families want to fix what’s not working rather than expand what is working? 

I can think of a couple reasons:

Empathy and bad strategy: Families feel bad for the kids who are stuck in the worse schools, and the most intuitive answer to “what should we do with more resources?” is “fix what’s not working.” In the private sector, fortunes have been lost on this fallacy. In the public sector, fortunes are spent on efforts that have failed for decades.

Virtue signaling: Families want to express that they are good people and not selfish, and in our society saying you want to invest more in neighborhood schools is a way to signal that you’re a good person.

They want their neighborhood schools to improve, they just don’t want their kids to suffer in the meantime: Perhaps families would rather send their own kids to the local neighborhood school, so they do want these schools to get better, but they’re just not willing to send their children there while they wait for this to happen.

I imagine all these factors are at play.

How do you respond?

I think this issue will continue to play out in high choice cities that are providing families with a lot of great public school options.

When it comes to their own children, families will, on average, send their children to the best public schools.

But when it comes to public opinion, families will say we should invest more in the schools that aren’t working.

This puts public charter school supporters in a very tricky position.

How can we try to create more great public schools under this dynamic?

I think charter supporters need to be very cautious in engaging in major, public citywide or statewide fights.

We can win an individual families’ hearts and minds when it comes to their own child, but the policy battles are tougher.

In other words: just keep on opening amazing new public charter schools. The system will become the best version of itself through educators opening up great public schools and families finding the best fit for their own children.

But it is also worth considering pacing: too much growth too quickly can shift an individual school opening debate into a citywide policy debate – a type of debate that is easily lost, as it was in Massachusetts.

Lastly, gradually opening up new great public schools will ultimately give families both what they want for their own children and what they want for the city: if every public school is great, than by default every school in every neighborhood will be great too.

Data from the report

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2 thoughts on “Families in Washington D.C. are conflicted between what works and what they want to work

  1. Gisèle Huff

    Neerav,

    What you describe are the political and PR challenges that have plagued the charter school movement for the 25 years that it has been in existence. In 2003, I participated in a meeting of foundations willing to make a significant investment in boosting the movement, aiming for 10,000 schools by 2010 (there were about 3,000 schools open at that time). So your solution “just keep on opening amazing new charter schools” flies in the face of that reality. In 2018, we’re up to about 7,000 schools and even a stalwart like you will not argue that they are all “amazing.” Scalability is a b****.

    Gisele

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  2. Jeff Noel

    I think this analysis is generally right, but it assumes continued expansion of high quality charter options, growth within the charter sector, and lack of systemic barriers to enrollment. As someone who has followed performance data in D.C. closely, those assumed characteristics are slowing. They are still going the right direction but more slowly than they were. This has reduced confidence in the charter sector as a solution.

    My understanding is only a couple researchers have been allowed to touch the lottery data after long term relationships, and that may explain why it isn’t connected here. The public data is very limited in depth.

    D.C. has also not been as aggressive about equity oriented charter school policies (around access or accountability) as NOLA is. I am hoping that changes.

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