Wednesday, December 3, 2014

New Report Compares School Choice Experience Among Parents in Eight ‘High-Choice’ Cities

Survey Finds Wide Variation, Room for Improvement, and Need for More High-Quality Schools

Seattle, WA – Parents are actively taking advantage of the opportunity to choose among district and charter public schools, but more needs to be done to improve options and help parents find the best schools for their children. These conclusions emerge from a new survey of 4,000 parents in eight ‘high-choice’ cities. Parent optimism and ease of navigating school choice vary widely among the eight cities. While some cities are improving parents’ ability to choose with confidence, each city has room for improvement to ensure that every parent can find the right school for their child.

These results are presented in a new report, How Parents Experience Public School Choice, released today by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington Bothell. The survey focused on parents in Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

“Parents in these cities are taking advantage of choice, but are having wildly different experiences when seeking the right school for their child,” said CRPE director Robin Lake. Key findings include:

  • When parents get the opportunity to choose, they take advantage of it, though many wish there were better options. In seven of the eight cities, half or more of parents reported choosing a non-neighborhood-based school. This ranged from a high of 87 percent in New Orleans to a low of 35 percent in Indianapolis. When asked whether they had other good options beyond their current school, however, the results varied widely by city. In Denver, 60 percent of parents reported having good public school options available to them, but only 40 percent of Philadelphia parents reported having another good option.
  • Among cities where choice is prevalent, parents’ optimism about whether schools are improving varies widely. More than half of all parents in Denver, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., reported that their cities’ schools are getting better, compared to less than a third of parents in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. Positive outlook about the public education system varied from as high as 65 percent of parents in D.C., to as low as 11 percent of parents in Philadelphia.
  • Some parents are forced to make difficult trade-offs between academics, safety, and location. Eighty percent of parents in Washington, D.C., and 79 percent of parents in New Orleans reported prioritizing academics over safety and school location. In other cities, where access to safe and accessible schools may be more of a challenge, smaller proportions of parents report choosing on the basis of academics.
  • Parents with less education, minority parents, and parents of children with special needs are more likely to report having difficulty navigating choice. In every city, parents with a high school diploma or less were significantly less likely than parents with a bachelor’s degree or more to report choosing on the basis of academic quality and more likely to cite safety and location as salient concerns. In New Orleans and Washington, D.C., African-American and Hispanic parents were much less likely to report optimism about whether schools are improving than were white parents. In Baltimore, parents whose children qualified for special education services were 52 percent more likely to report trouble finding a school that fit their child’s needs, compared to parents whose children did not qualify for special education services.

Some cities have done much more than others to support parent choice. Denver, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., have made the most progress on transportation, fair enrollment, and information systems, but all cities have much work to do. Parents report struggling to get the information they need, even in cities with comprehensive parent information systems. Parents were the least likely to report transportation as a barrier in New Orleans, the only city where most non-neighborhood public schools provide transportation.

The researchers recommend that civic and school leaders in these cities focus on making more high-quality schools available, develop more customized solutions for parents struggling to navigate their options, provide greater transportation assistance for those seeking a better school, and invest more heavily in information systems to help parents make more informed choices.

“What’s clear is that parents are taking advantage of the opportunity to choose a public school for their child, but simply having the freedom to choose isn’t enough,” said Ashley Jochim, lead author of the study. “School and civic leaders can make school choice more meaningful for parents by addressing parents’ desire for more high-quality school options and eliminating barriers that make choosing a school difficult.”

CRPE conducted this survey in the spring of 2014, gathering data from 500 parents or guardians in eight high-choice cities across the country. This report, which breaks out the survey findings among each of the eight cities, is the second in CRPE’s Making School Choice Work series, with the first report issued in July 2014.