Making School Choice Work: It Still Takes a City

October 2014

This essay was prepared for the Policy Innovators in Education (PIE) Network 2014 Summit.

School choice is no longer just for families who can buy a home near a good school or pay for private school. In many cities today, families from all income levels can choose from among traditional, magnet and charter schools. In fact, in cities like Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., choice-based enrollment is outpacing neighborhood-based enrollment.

Increases in school choice create opportunities, but also challenges: families have to track down information about schools, traverse complex enrollment processes and arrange to get their children to school. Schools end up operating under different governing and accountability systems, which have distinct interests, constituencies, geographic responsibilities and resources. Add uneven school quality to the mix, and the results for parents can be bewildering.

Cities like Denver, New Orleans, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. are trying to make choice work better by adopting new cross-sector solutions that cover district schools and charter schools, including common enrollment systems, comprehensive parent information systems, transportation systems and common school accountability frameworks. The primary jurisdiction for these policies is the city. The challenge they present is that they require school districts, charter authorizers and charter school operators to all take responsibility for communicating with families and educating youth in a way that takes advantages of the dynamism of choice while promoting equity and performance citywide.

Cities have a direct interest in successful educational outcomes, given the link between education and economic growth, health, cultural richness and social sustainability. But cities rarely have control over their schools. Sometimes cities can get districts, authorizers and charters to come together voluntarily to address cross-sector problems and adopt streamlined information or enrollment systems. But when appeals for voluntary cooperation fail, city leaders can also consider:

  • Using incentives to get players to cooperate. District leaders in Cleveland, for example, offer levy funds to high-quality charter schools if they will partner with the district (even if they are authorized by another agency).
  • Using authority to get players to cooperate. Louisiana’s Recovery School District in New Orleans, for example, used its authority to require charter schools in the city to participate in a unified enrollment system citywide.
  • Reforming governance to change the number and quality of the players. This might involve shifting the number or structure of authorizers in a state or creating groups with authority to coordinate services and close failing schools.


  1. Engage Families. Get a handle on how parents are experiencing school choice in your city via participation, surveys, focus groups, and/or interviews. Provide venues for them to speak up about their experiences and needs. In debates about how to improve the system, use families’ experiences to illustrate the benefits and challenges of the current system.
  2. Reframe the problem. People talk about “the district” and charter schools as two systems locked in battle. Rather than focusing on one or the other, reframe the problem to be about improving public school opportunities citywide. Prioritize and advocate on behalf of the need to improve the entire system of schools and make sure that every neighborhood has great public schools.
  3. Encourage cross-sector policies. The details will differ, but broad-based cross-sector policies that streamline enrollment and transportation and help consolidate school information can help parents exercise choice more confidently.
  4. Demand accountability. Ask who is responsible in our city for making things better for all students in all public schools? Who needs to come to the table to support common sense, cross-sector policies that can help address issues that parents and children face citywide?
  5. See the related research report on which this essay is based.