Poor Parents Can Be Good Choosers

April 2006

This commentary by Paul Teske, Patrick Wolf, and Paul Hill first appeared in Education Week, April 18, 2006.

Starting with the economist Milton Friedman, supporters of school choice have assumed that competition would lead to better schools, and that parents could do a better job of assigning children to schools than could school administrators. The debate on the first assumption is raging. The second assumption has received little attention, except from those who assert that middle-class families can make good choices but impoverished families can’t.

Our new research paints a very different picture of how low-income and minority families in big cities choose schools when they get the chance. Like middle-class parents who have always had choices, low-income parents don’t look for alternatives if their children are happy and successful in school. But once they start thinking about school options, low-income families want information about schools and think hard about the choices they have. Poor parents seek to escape problems evident in their children’s current school, and have definite ideas about the differences between one child and another (our studious boy, our distractible girl) that lead them to search for an appropriate match between child and school.

But our results also identify barriers that must be overcome before low-income parents can become the types of savvy consumers that can make school choice work well for them.

The first barrier is disbelief. Low-income parents are so accustomed to not having options that they assume choices are for someone else, not them. The word eventually trickles through parent grapevines and other informal networks, but when choice programs are new, many parents ignore news media and advertising. Newspapers and Web sites don’t work as well as grassroots information campaigns, ethnic radio, and bus advertising.

The second barrier is possible misinformation. Opponents often send the message that “these options are not real, don’t trust them,” or “they say the options are free, but someday you will have to pay the money back.” School districts also hide the existence of options required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Again, grassroots information, from trusted neighborhood sources like other parents and ministers, is necessary to make choice real for low-income families.

The third barrier is the need for the personal touch. When it comes to making a final choice, low-income parents want to talk with parents who have experience with particular schools, and many want advice from parent counselors or information centers. They want to know about school programs and performance, but need help digesting the information. Counselors can help parents use Web sites, boil down detailed information about transportation options, and fill out often dauntingly complex school- and voucher-application forms. Most parents want help that they consider unbiased. They want counselors who work for a parent or community group, rather than for the district.

The fourth barrier is low-income parents’ skepticism about test scores. Like middle-class parents, low-income families have a wider definition of “quality” than just test scores. They choose schools partly on the basis of safety, order, and discipline, and on positive feelings from teachers and administrators. If they are considering schools outside their neighborhoods or with large numbers of students from racial backgrounds different from their own, parents want to know about what is done to make new students feel at home. This information comes best from school visits and talks with other parents.

This fourth barrier has implications for public policy. Parents’ concern for the “softer” elements of schooling doesn’t eliminate the community’s need to hold schools accountable for students’ test scores, graduation rates, and ultimate success in higher education and jobs. Parents with choices can reward schools that have desirable “intangibles” and avoid schools that lack them. Knowing this, government still needs to hold schools accountable in the narrower domain of test scores and other “hard” outcomes.

Nothing we have found refutes Milton Friedman’s insight about the value of choice. Low-income parents want options, and they demonstrate excellent common sense in pursuing them. But, as with the “shock” of opening up free markets in former Communist countries, simply creating some market options is not enough.

Barriers to parent choice can all be overcome, but it will take planning, organization, and some modest public spending. Though school choice programs incorporate some market-based ideas, the invisible hand probably won’t be enough to meet poor parents’ information needs—at least not until a choice system is mature and all parents have options, believe they have them, and gain some experience with choosing.