Category Archives: School Choice

What if unified enrollment platforms were 10x better?

An emerging group of cities – including Washington D.C., Newark, Camden, New Orleans, and Denver – have adopted unified enrollment systems. With these systems, families can enroll in schools across the city via an online application system.

This is a huge step forward. For too long, parents have not had enough information or access to the public schools in their cities.

However, the new enrollment systems are still in their infancy. The best version of these systems could radically improve public education. Unfortunately, we’re very far from this endgame.

I. Early Wins: Access, Equity, and Ranking

Access: With the best open enrollment systems, families who can’t afford a house in a fancy neighborhood can now finally transparently apply to a school in a more wealthy neighborhood.

As a result of increase in access, a recent study in Washington D.C. found that the new enrollment regime would likely reduce segregation over time:

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Equity: In most cities, traditional and charter schools play a ton of games with enrollment. Traditional magnet schools use opaque entry requirements. Bad apple charters don’t take in kids with special needs. There is no equity.

With online enrollment platforms, these problems go away, as schools are no longer in control of their enrollment.

Quite simply: the algorithm is fairer than the enrollment clerk.

Ranking: These new enrollment systems also allow parents to rank their top schools. This is extremely important.

First, a family’s high desire to enroll their child in a school can now  be translated into an increased chance that they actually get into this school.

Previously, high desire meant little unless you were connected, wealthy, or dogged.

Second, ranking allows  parents to publicly signal to government which schools are most and least in demand (which will ideally affect opening, expansion, and closure decisions). It also signals to school operators what attributes make a school in high demand.

By analyzing ranking preferences, researchers in New Orleans were able to correlate school characteristics with parent preference:

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 9.44.39 AMRanking transforms family desire into actionable information.

II. Unified Enrollment Systems are Mediocre Platforms

In preparation for writing this blog, I spend an hour on unified enrollment system websites. It was not a great experience.

Here is the school finder homepage from Washington D.C. – I couldn’t even find a way to filter schools by academic performance!

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Here is the search function for Newark’s enrollment system – you have to download a pdf!

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By comparison, here’s the search page from Zillow:

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On Zillow, you can easily search for homes based on the most useful search criteria. Yes, Zillow is surely better capitalized than your average enrollment system, but even with modest funds a city should be able to do better than a downloadable pdf.

III. Moving From Equity and Ranking to Matching and Prediction

More sophisticated uniform enrollment could offer two extraordinary improvements: they could better match families with schools, and they could better predict how any given student would do at a school.

Matching: Right now families mostly use enrollment systems for ranking: they know the schools they want and they use enrollment systems to express this desire.

What is not really happening (as far as I can tell) is sophisticated algorithms actually helping families match with schools.

For example, on Camden’s enrollment site (where you can thankfully filter by academic performance!), I found three schools that all met the “on track” performance criteria, and pulled up the comparison page:

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This does very little to help me choose between these schools. My preference variables are limited to very broad categories such as “art classes” and “after school programs.”

After playing around on these websites, I get very little indication that that the platform knows me or the schools very well. Compare this to Netflix, Amazon, or dating websites (previous life) – platforms where I feel like the algorithms know me better than myself.

Unified enrollment systems need to more deeply understand children and schools in order to make better matches.

Prediction: Right now, government accountability systems are a basket case of poor design (generally don’t weight growth enough), brutal politics (what politician wants to tell a bunch of communities they only have “F” schools?), and awful transparency (good luck trying to navigate your average state department of education website).

Most importantly, government accountability systems evaluate schools rather than make predictions.

As a parent, it’s one thing to tell you that a school is a “C+” – it’s another thing to give you a prediction of what will happen to your child if she attends the school.

With current date, we could probably gather basic information on your child’s age, gender, current academic performance, personality type, etc.,  and make a reasonably accurate prediction that if she attends school X she will have a Y% chance of graduating from high schools and a Z% chance of earning a post-secondary degree.

Good enrollment systems, over time, should become better and better predictive agents, and, perhaps, can end up augmenting (displacing?) government accountability systems.

IV. Root Causes and Potential Solutions 

I don’t yet have strong beliefs about the root causes of why these enrollment products aren’t getting better faster. But here’s some guesses:

Non-profits > government operated: Most of the enrollment systems are run by governments, which are not good at running tech products and have bad incentives around giving parents accurate information about schools. Non-profits would likely be better operationally and have better incentives, and avoid the privacy concerns associated with for-profits.

Lack of scale: Matching and predication can better with bigger data sets, and if all these systems are structured as isolated city based data silos, the algorithms will be dumber than they should be.

Weak Customer Demand -> Bad Economics: SchoolMint, from what I understand, is the most successful player in the market. For reasons I don’t underhand, this company has not developed a better product. Perhaps it’s because their government customers don’t actually want it. Or perhaps the economics don’t work (which might suggest philanthropy is needed).

If the above is true, a national non-profit should be backed to scale to enough size to create smart algorithms, and it should be financially structured in a manner that gets it out of the perverse incentives of being beholden to government or individual schools rather than families.

A philanthropic foundation with a great tech backbone could be well situated to support this endeavor.

V. Expectations

Better matching and prediction would probably not make the average student’s education experience 10x better, just as dating websites don’t inevitably lead to great marriages.

But I do think better matching and predication could increase the probabilities that millions of families could find a better fit for their children.

At scale, that’s a better world.

When It Comes to Schools, Who Knows Best?

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Traditional public education systems assign students to schools based on postal addresses.

This can be viewed as either a feature or a bug of public schooling.

Postal address assignment can be viewed as a feature if one holds either of the following opinions: (1) school district officials will be better choosers than families; or (2) the costs of allowing families to choose individual schools are too high to the system as a whole.

I view postal address school assignment as a horrible bug.

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I have no illusion that families will always choose a great school for their children. But this is not the right question. The right question is whether or not, on average, families will be better choosers than district officials.

Two pieces of evidence make it very clear to me that families will, on average, choose better than district officials.

First, to date, district officials (who do not give families choice) have not improved on their century old algorithm of assigning schools based on geographic proximity. If this is the best that they can come up with, then good riddance.

Second, district officials continue assigning poor black and Hispanic families to terrible schools. If they cannot see that their algorithm is terribly racist, then good riddance.

As for the second issue – that the cost of giving choice to families is too high – New Orleans, Denver, and Washington D.C. have already demonstrated that this concern can be overcome. Rather than choice negatively hurting these schools systems, choice has been expanded while these cities have seen significant gains in overall achievement.

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One last issue: should we do anything if families choose to send their children to terribly failing schools?

Yes. I think that we should transform or close these schools.

Here, an analogy might be made to health inspections – even if a restaurant has a line out the door, if it is dishing out salmonella the government will close it.

While it’s a complicated issue, I do think there are instances where the government should override family choice.

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Fordham just released its analysis of school choice in cities across the country (the Laura and John Arnold Foundation helped fund the work).

Here are the results.

I am glad they did not grade on a curve.

This would have masked the brutal reality that most district officials do not trust families to choose schools for their own children.

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A Debate Within the Family: To Regulate or Not?

Jay Greene had a series of posts on choice regulation over at his blog.

His overarching argument: regulating school choice does more harm than good.

Broadly, I think Jay makes a number of good points. I also think he overstates his case.

More specifically, I think his arguments are somewhat strong on performance and pretty weak on equity.

I also think that Jay could be more conservative on how he generalizes fairly narrow research findings, especially given how hard he is on others who misuse research!

Overall, Jay made me think harder about how philanthropists should allocate resources across choice interventions. He might be right that there is too much attention to charters. I think if voucher proponents were more serious about equity regulation they could help shift the focus. I’d be happy to work with Jay and others on this. Nevada and other pilots that attempt to achieve scale could be fruitful places to partner and learn more.

Below I tackle his main points.

Government funding does not require performance oversight.

Jay notes that cash transfer programs (such as Social Security) do not come with government performance contracts. This is true.

Jay also notes that food stamps don’t come up with performance contracts. In his words: “When the government provides food stamps it does not require recipients to submit BMI measurements or other indicators of adequate nutrition.”

This is true, but it’s not a perfect example, as the government does require the providers of food to meet performance input targets (food must have some nutritional value). The government does not trust the consumer to make his or her own decisions, so choice is restricted based on the nutritional performance of the food provider’s product.

While there is not accountability for outcomes, there is heavy regulation of inputs.

More broadly, we are seeing more and more performance accountability in government health programs (Obamacare looking at things such as readmission rates) and government post-secondary programs (requiring schools that receive Pell grants to achieve certain performance targets).

Jay overstates his case when he says: “Repeating that government funds require accountability to the government is just mindless sloganeering, not an accurate description of how government programs typically operate.”

Yes, education testing is probably on the more regulated end of pay for performance. But the issue is a complicated one, and most government programs (except for direct cash transfers) regulate inputs and many also regulate outputs.

There is a vast academic literature on these various approaches.

Whether or not to regulate for outputs is worthy of deep debate, not outright dismissal.

Personally, I’m probably closer to Jay on this than the average charter supporter. I think that, over time, not regulating for performance would likely work out. In my previous writings, I’ve often said that I’d make the “all choice for no testing” trade with the far left and the far right.

But I think the issue is complicated. And, as I note below, I’m fairly comfortable with the government putting in a performance floor and closing down the very worst performers.

Test Scores are Limited Tools; Attainment is a Better Proxy for Quality than Test Scores; Vouchers Do Better on Attainment

Jay rightfully points out that test don’t measure everything: things like grit and conscientiousness are likely very important to lifetime outcomes and it is very difficult to capture these in tests.

Matt Barnum did a good response on this. In short, numerous studies have tied increases in test scores to increases in long-term outcomes. None of these studies are a slam dunk, and causation can be tricky, but there’s enough here to make a case that achievement tests measure some of what we want schools to be doing.

For these reasons, I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that performance accountability, if it is to be used, should be used as a floor rather than the end all be all of school grading. Perhaps “A-F” systems should just be “F” systems.

Jay then argues that because testing doesn’t measure everything, attainment is actually a better measure of school quality.

Jay might be right, but it’s complicated. Yes, achieving a degree (be it high school or post secondary) will likely increase a student’s life outcomes. But the more this degree attainment is divorced from knowledge attainment (and test scores), the weaker this effect might become over time (unless employers really just care about conscientiousness, which may very well be the case).

All told, the international evidence on “schooling ain’t learning” is robust.

That being said, in terms of policy, I don’t really have much to disagree with here. As I noted above, I have mixed feelings on performance accountability as it is, and an increased focus on attainment might be very healthy for the charter community.

Jay then makes the case that vouchers do better on achievement than charters. Jay cites three studies, two of which find higher degree attainment. The Milwaukee study found increased high school degree and college persistence with voucher students, while the DC study found voucher students had increased high school graduation. The NYC programs only increased college attendance (I didn’t see any evidence on graduation). Moreover, the NYC program was only a partial scholarship, which as far as I can tell required families to pay for a portion of schooling (which makes it hard to generalize to families that could not afford to pay). The DC voucher program was fairly small in scope as well.

This does not seem to be an evidence base from which one can make strong, generalized claims about what voucher effects would be on a systems level. Only the Milwaukee and DC programs come near providing a full voucher program, and only the Milwaukee program got to real scale.

As Jay points out, the most rigorous charter research finds positive effects on test scores rather than attainment. But the evidence on test score gains is massive: CREDO has studied dozens of cities and have found an overall effect of ~.1 for urban areas serving hundreds of thousands of students. This research includes three markets where charters serve roughly half of all students or more (NOLA, DC, Detroit). And the impact on New Orleans attainment has been very significant (high school graduation rates are up twenty points). Of course, systems level evidence is  not randomly controlled, but this doesn’t mean that it’s not useful; in many instances, it’s probably more predictive than small RCTs.

If I had to bet on which intervention is most likely to work at scale, I’d be inclined to bet on a massive data set that found positive effects on test scores rather than a very narrow data set of three studies where only two study found higher degree attainment.

Of course, I might be wrong. But Jay has surely not proven his case. The evidence he cites covers small scale studies that make it difficult to generalize.

We Should Not Regulate Choice Programs for Equity

Jay first notes that heavy regulations –  “such as mandating that schools accept voucher amounts as payment in full, prohibiting schools from applying their own admissions requirements” – decreases the number of participating private schools.  This is clearly true.

Undoubtedly, more private schools will enroll voucher students if they can screen out students with behavioral issues and very low income students (which is what admissions requirements and pay-sharing would do).

In arguing against regulation, Jay writes: “But real education reform requires using the power of choice and competition to provide incentives to create more good and to reduce bad.”

Yet Jay’s version of education reform would clearly incentivize schools to not enroll students with behavioral issues or children from very low incomes. Why enroll a student who is hard to serve or who can only pay partial tuition?

This is the biggest flaw in Jay’s argument.

Jay is probably right that the performance market would correct itself over time.

It is very unclear to me that this would be true for equity.

It was surprising to me that Jay did not even find this obvious rebuttal worth mentioning.

Voucher proponents such as Jay would do well to think hard about reasonable equity regulations that ensure that decentralized choice markets offer good educational opportunities to all students.

Charter markets are moving toward unified enrollment and expulsion processes as easy to regulate for equity. Perhaps these processes are too heavy handed.

But I think some equity mechanisms need to be put in place.

Of course, you can make the argument that it is ok to have unequal public educational access so long as this system lifts all boats in the aggregate. Given that I believe that equity in access is a principle in of itself, it would take fairly large overall achievement gains for me to be willing to compromise so hard on equity.

Concluding Thoughts

There does seem to be enough in theory and evidence to support larger scale pilots of voucher programs.

This is why many people, charter school supporters included, are eager to see what we learn from Nevada.

For whatever it’s worth, my two major critique of the Nevada voucher were that the voucher amount was not enough money and that equitable access safeguards do not seem to be in place.

But overall I think it’s a very important breakthrough for choice.

So if the goal is more experimentation at scale, sign me up.

But in this experimentation I’d just argue for some basic equity guardrails so that choice is available to everyone, including the most disadvantaged.

Lastly, thanks to Jay for putting forth a good argument. It’s well worth grappling with.

Families Choose Between Schools, Not Talking Points

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Normandy High honors student Cameron Hensley (left), a senior, checks his phone as some students sleep away physics class on Thursday, April 30, 2015. Though the teacher was inside the classroom the entire class period, no instruction occurred. Instead, the teacher and many students spent the hour on their phones or practicing for the dance team’s upcoming parade.

I was recently talking to Mike Goldstein about the NYT Success Academies piece.

One could read the article, which painted the schools as fairly oppressive, and struggle to understand why 22,000 families applied for 2,700 open slots.

Mike raised the issue that it is odd that we continue to see two stories play out in the media: (1) detractors decry high-peforming charter schools for test prep, strict discipline, and privatization; and (2) parent demand for these schools is through the roof.

Mike and I think this is another appearance of the Nirvana Fallacy: detractors critiquing something for its imperfections while over idealizing alternative options.

Our primary lens of understanding high-performing charter schools should not be by comparing them to Nirvana; it should be by comparing them to other available options.

Mike noted that opinions might not be so polarized if detractors actually witnessed what happens at underperforming schools, both in the classroom, as well in social places – the lunchroom, recess, and, yes, the bathroom. The intellectual apathy and the physical and emotional bullying can be heartbreaking.

For a window into what parents might be choosing between, read this piece on Normandy High School:

“Third period is nothing to expect,” she said after she sat down. “She doesn’t take attendance. No work at all. No intent to do any work.”

The instructor, Ivy Word, sat in the front corner looking at her computer screen. She’s a substitute teacher who’s been in charge of the class since the start of the school year.

Some students sat at the back of the room, ear buds in their ears. Some slept. Carver and four other girls talked about prom. Carver took out a comb and began braiding a classmate’s hair. Another girl began gluing fake eyelashes.

In classes where teachers have given up, students have, too. They spend the hour texting friends, snapping photos and sending them by social media.

This is the reality that families living in poverty often face. They are not choosing between dueling narratives; they are choosing between schools that may set their children on the path to college or schools that may push their children into prison.

To their credit, the New York Times also did a piece sharing six parent perspectives.

But here’s what I would have loved to see: interviews with the 22,000 families who tried to get into Success Academies.

This might have given us a better insight into how families, unlike so many commentators, understand that the choice is not between high-performing charter schools and Nirvana.

Rather, the choice is between schools, that, for all their imperfections, do well by children – and schools that do not.

A School Choice Education Consultant is Cheaper than a F***ing House

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Three articles recently came out about school choice.

This article details how parents in Washington D.C. are hiring school choice consultants to help them navigate their options. From the article:

Most D.C. families don’t have the wherewithal to pay for school advice, raising questions about whether school choice highlights a divide between parents who have the information they need to navigate the system — and the ability to transport their kids across town to a better school — and parents who don’t.

This article in Education Week details the rise of choice consultants and notes:

…others worry that consultants are a symptom of a system that’s perhaps getting too complicated for parents, and could potentially put low-income families who can’t afford such services at a competitive disadvantage.

And the San Francisco Chronicle reports:

“The irony is that a system that has very complicated, precise rules, that encourages you to go out and see and evaluate a bunch of schools, obviously benefits the most advantaged families,” said board member Norton.

A couple of thoughts:

1. I can guarantee you that a nice house in Washington D.C. or San Francisco costs more than an education choice consultant. You know what’s unfair? Having to be able to drop 1.2 million on a two bedroom house to get access to a good school. If paying $250 to a school choice consultant is now all it takes to level the playing, I think that’s about a one million dollar move in the right direction.

2. A good letter grade system will reduce education choice consultants to an unnecessary luxury. Everyone understands that “A” and “B” schools are better than “D” and “F” schools. If these districts really cared about poor families having access to good information, they would label their schools.

3. Inevitably, in a choice system, some parents will make bad choices. And more educated families will likely have some advantages in navigating the process. But the question you need to ask is not: is this system perfect? Rather, you should ask: is this system better than assigning people to schools based on their ability to buy a house?

Yes, there’s been plenty of room to make choice systems better.

But let’s be crystal clear about the fact that nearly every school district in the country assigns people to schools based on the market value of their home.

The education injustice in this country is not about having too many choices. It’s about having too few.

Why Families in New Orleans Choose Schools

I just made my way through Doug Harris and Matthew Larsen’s study: What Schools Do Families Want (and Why?).

It is well worth reading. The emerging data on parental choice is increasingly grounded in the new realities of the existence of functioning choice sectors.

As it happens, it’s much easier to study parental choice when you give parents choices.

The usual caveats apply: it’s one study, over one time period, in one city – so we should view this research as useful but not dispositive.

Some initial reflections below.

Why families choose schools in New Orleans – in one table

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In Louisiana, SPS is the measure of academic performance. So high SPS = high test scores. Also worth noting: SPS only has a small growth component it, so high SPS tells us more about the students than the school.

Low-income families value academic performance – and other things too

Low-income families do preference academics in making school decisions, but they also care about extended day schools and free afterschool care more than higher income families (see the end of the post for the data table of preference by income for elementary / middle schools).

It is not shocking that families with less resources value such services.

It is also not shocking that wealthy families care more about things like new buildings.

Unified enrollment systems and letter grades matter

The authors’ note: “The demand for academic quality did not increase (and may have decreased) with the broad-based Parents’ Guide and other reforms, but did increase after the OneApp and school letter grades.”

Personally, I don’t think families have real choice unless they have good information and access to a user-friendly enrollment processes.

It’s great to see that once a city puts enrollment and letter grades in place, demand for academic quality increases.

Often times, when I’m consulting with cities their leaders have extravagant plans to inform parents about school quality. I generally reply: just put out letter grades. I’m glad my instincts are beginning to be confirmed by research.

The consequence of different preferences 

Some initial commentators were made uncomfortable by the fact that families choose schools for different reasons, especially given that the data indicates that lower-income families are less sensitive to academic performance than wealthy families (who care less about things like free afterschool care).

In choice systems, families will make choices based on their individual circumstances, not based on the preferences of journalists, policy wonks, and academics.

Generally speaking, I think the benefits of a choice system like New Orleans (liberty to choose, competition amongst schools, increased entrepreneurship, real accountability, increased academic outcomes) outweigh risks of suboptimal decision making (and to be clear: I don’t think view considering other factors outside of academics as suboptimal).

And I do think there are certain instances when we should overrule parental choices. I support the government closing down “F” and “D” rated schools that fail to improve.

Sound regulation can protect children in the instances where their parents make disastrous choices.

Reality check

A couple of closing thoughts.

In most public school systems, the differences between how wealthy and low-income families choose schools is based on their ability to buy a nice house.

Whatever flaws you see in the New Orleans choice system, if you believe that it is more equitable to assign schools based on the ability to purchase a nice house, then please a write a response to this post and show your work.

For me, the most important finding of the report is this:

After Katrina, the lowest-income families had greater access to schools with high test scores. School bus transportation systems expanded, average test scores increased across the city, and schools with higher test scores were more likely to locate near lower-income neighborhoods.

Pre-Katrina public schools zoned for the highest-income neighborhoods were 1.3 letter grades higher than schools zoned for low-income neighborhoods; the difference between the lowest- and highest-income neighborhoods dropped to just a half letter grade considering the nearest schools after Katrina.

Again: after Katrina, the lowest-income families had greater access to schools with high test scores.

This is progress.

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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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Reflections

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.