Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Information, Transportation, and Lack of Quality Schools Are Greatest Barriers to School Choice

New survey finds many city parents are choosing their child’s public school, but challenges remain.

Seattle, WA - A majority of parents, including half of those who lack a high school diploma, are choosing to send their child to a school that is not assigned to them based on their residence, according to a new survey of 4,000 parents in eight major cities. Yet many parents still face barriers that limit their ability to choose a school for their child, including inadequate information, lack of convenient transportation, and uneven school quality.

Released today by the University of Washington Bothell’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) as part of a report titled Making School Choice Work, the survey analyzed cities across the country where parents can choose from multiple public school options. To answer the question, “How can civic leaders create a system of school choice that works for all families?” CRPE researchers surveyed 500 parents each in Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

“Our study shows that school choice is not a niche phenomenon. But, our analysis suggests that cities offering school choice must better align information and critical services such as transportation, which parents overwhelmingly cite as key needs, and they must work harder to ensure that all neighborhoods have great public school options,” said CRPE Director Robin Lake.

Parents identified many barriers when it comes to choosing the best school for their child. These include:

  • Understanding which schools their child was eligible to attend (33 percent).
  • Getting transportation to and from school (26 percent), and getting information about schools (25 percent).
  • Less-educated parents were 72 percent more likely to cite transportation as a barrier and 58 percent more likely to cite problems getting the information they needed to make a choice than more educated parents.

Of the 4,000 surveyed parents, half stated that if their current school did not exist, there was no other school available to them that they would find acceptable. Four in ten parents (42 percent) cited finding a good fit as a key challenge to choosing a school.

CRPE researchers found that improving this state of affairs is not easy. In systems with multiple public school options, responsibility for schools often falls to multiple parties, including school districts, charter school authorizers, and state agencies, ultimately weakening accountability. In Detroit, for example, responsibility for oversight of the city schools is spread across nearly a dozen entities, most of which aren’t even located in the city.

However, CRPE researchers also found that officials in some cities with multiple education options are creatively working together to address the concerns of parents. The best examples of this take place in regions where individuals and organizations are motivated to collaborate in service of all city families, rather than particular service providers.

In D.C., Denver, and New Orleans, for example, officials are collaborating across the charter and district sectors to successfully run centralized enrollment systems, making it easier for parents to send their child to higher-performing schools. In Cleveland, the school district offers local levy dollars to charter schools that agree to cooperate.

While these efforts are promising, the report argues that in some cities the situation for parents is dire and the prospects for voluntary coordination across sectors remote. In these cases, state leaders, mayors, and others may need to change state and local laws to ensure that districts and charter authorizers oversee schools responsibly and that families do not face large barriers to choice, such as inadequate transportation. In some cases, formal governance changes may be necessary to address the challenges to making school choice work for all families.

In the Fall of 2014, CRPE will be diving deeply into the city-specific survey results to examine how investments in parent information, enrollment, transportation, and quality impact how parents experience school choice in American cities today.

Making School Choice Work, by Michael DeArmond, Ashley Jochim, and Robin Lake, is available at