Lessons from the trenches on making school choice work

In the United States, what school a child attends is determined in large part by where she lives. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly three-quarters of American children attend schools assigned to them based on their residence.  When combined with deep and long-lasting patterns of residential segregation, particularly in cities, assigning students to their neighborhood schools results in educational opportunities that are extensively stratified by race and class. Low-income and minority children, who now make up the majority of public school students in the U.S., are less likely to attend high-performing schools than their non-minority and more affluent peers and more likely to attend schools that are under-resourced and staffed by the least experienced educators.  

Many education reformers have turned to school choice as one answer to these challenges. Proponents of school choice argue that untethering school enrollment from residential location levels the playing field for less advantaged families, who often are unable to compete with more affluent families to buy a house near a good public school. Critics, however, worry that school choice may exacerbate existing inequities in public education, with the least advantaged children least likely to benefit.

Research conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, where I work, lends some evidence to debates about whether offering school choice to families is an effective tool to promote educational equity.  We learned that many less advantaged families will take advantage of school choice when provided the option. But, without more attention to the barriers families face in the process of choosing a school, the effects of choice on access to educational opportunity will be limited.

We examined families’ experiences with school choice in a March 2014 survey of 4,000 public school parents in eight “high choice” cities (Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.). We found 49 percent of public school parents with a high school diploma or less chose a non-neighborhood-based public school, which we defined as any school not based on geographic assignment of students (including charter schools), compared to 59 percent of parents with at least some college. In a few of the cities we studied (Indianapolis, Detroit, and Cleveland), parents with less education were about as likely to exercise choice as their peers with more education while in others (Denver, Baltimore, and Philadelphia), we observed large and troubling gaps in access between families of different circumstances.

Of the 4,000 public school parents we surveyed:

  • One-in-three reported difficulty understanding eligibility requirements
  • One-in-four reported struggling to get information about their public school options and to find transportation
  • One-in-five reported trouble with the enrollment system.

Families with lower levels of educational attainment were much more likely to report difficulty with all of these issues, a fact that is especially troubling given the desire to expand access to good schools for more vulnerable students and families.

Cities like Denver and New Orleans have made strides in streamlining the process of choosing a school. These cities and others investing in similar policies have simplified enrollment paperwork, created parent guides that make it easier for families to access information on schools, and are investing in innovative transportation options to ensure that access to choice isn’t determined by the resources families have available to them.  The Brookings Institution tracks many of these investments with its annual Education Choice and Competition Index.

While these supports are essential, it is likely that some families will require even more targeted assistance to help them navigate the labyrinth of public school options. D.C. School Reform Now is one of just a handful of organizations that works directly with families in underserved communities to provide direct and personalized support in the process of choosing a school.

While the efforts of these and other organizations help to remedy many of the barriers families confront in the process of choosing a school, they do not address the fact that demand for quality schools far outstrips the number of seats available. Among those parents we surveyed, nearly half reported having no other option they’d be happy with, and four-in-ten said the available schools were not a good fit for their child.

These data suggest the most pressing challenge for making school choice work lies in expanding the number of high quality schools families may choose from. While many proponents of school choice argue that market pressures incentivize school systems to improve over the long run, choice on its own is unlikely to drive improvement quickly enough to address gaps in educational opportunity. As John Maynard Keynes famously observed, “[The] long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run, we are all dead.”

In many cities, getting a handle on the supply side of school choice will require aggressive action by those who lead urban school systems—superintendents and school districts, but also charter school operators and authorizers. Education reform advocates can play an instrumental role in ensuring these players don’t just compete for students, but also work to ensure all families have access to high quality schools.

At CRPE, we believe education needs to be viewed through a citywide lens, much like public safety and public health. Rather than assuming that offering school choice resolves equity issues, city leaders should take advantage of the data that is captured through the school choice process. Understanding families’ barriers, preferences, and unmet needs can be instrumental in helping city leaders determine where they need to seed high quality schools and programs and which groups of students may need targeted supports to navigate the school choice process.