Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Wedneday Issue: Educating Parents to Make the Right School Choose

Earlier this week, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Arizona State University released a collaborative study entitled, "Who Chooses Schools, and Why?" Full text found here.

In the report, the authors examine how parents who exercise school choice evaluate their children's educational options and settle on the best school. They review the literature about parents who send their children to private school, as well as parents who participate in means-based voucher programs, who send their children to charter or magnet schools, and those who choose to homeschool their own children.

Here are some key findings (in italics) and my commentary:

The primary stated motivation in all types of choice is perceived academic quality; the primary influence in terms of documented behavior is peer composition in terms of race and class.... White parents tend to avoid schools with high minority concentrations, and minority parents tend to avoid schools with high percentages of low-income students.

Therefore, while parents are searching primarily for the best academic education for their children, demographic information heavily influences how they define "best academic education."

The school choice movement has long argued that school choice will desegregate schools. While it is true that in certain cities, private schools are more racially diverse than their public counterparts, this research indicates that not all parents who elect schools of choice are necessarily looking for racial (or class) diversity. Therefore, the question becomes: how do we help (White) parents get away from the assumption that a high minority population equals a worse education and
how do we convince (minority) parents that schools with large low-income populations can offer a good education?

The primary way that parents learn about schools in through their social networks.... What social networks do is present constrained sets of schools. Of particular note here is that lower-income families tend to have more failing and less competitive schools in their choice sets.

Here is where school choice organizations can provide a real boon to parents. We have the resources to develop effective "word of mouth" strategies to reach out to low-income parents. So, what will they be? How can we ensure that parents are getting the right "word of mouth" information and thus, empowered to make good decisions about their children's schooling?

Recent research also shows that having instructional and academic information about schools, which many choice programs provide (i.e. booklets on choice programs) is not necessarily sufficient to get families to choose schools of high academic quality. Demographic information about schools appears to be a key factor parents consider in a variety of choice settings...

And here, friends, is one of the paradoxes of school choice. Universal school choice means that parents have the power to choose whatever schools they want, and that choice can be based on whatever information they want, even if it goes against the ideals of the school choice movement (like desegregating schools, for example). So how do we strike a balance between giving parents what they want (and deserve) and ensuring that choice really CAN improve and diversify our school system? It's an interesting question and something that, surely, choice advocates should have on their minds.

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