Parents, School Choice, and More Data Points

Parents and school choice. School choice and parents. As the public discussions on charter schools specifically and school choice in general continue to plow forward, there is more and more focus on the role of parents in the process.

This week, the Center on Reinventing Public Education released a new report, How Parents Experience School Choice, that surveyed parents in Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. Families in these strong charter cities were queried on their experiences in exercising parental choice when it came to their kids’ schools.

So what, exactly, did CRPE find? Among the toplines from 4,000 parent interviews:

  • In seven of the eight communities, half or more parents chose a non-neighborhood-based schools. In New Orleans, that number rose to 87 percent. In Indy, it dropped to 35 percent.
  • Parental views on the public schools differed greatly, with 60 percent of Denver parents saying they had good public school options available to them, while only 40 percent of Philly parents had the same perspective.
  • In Denver, NoLa, and DC, where choice is growing, more than half of parents said their cities’ schools were getting better. The high-water mark was in DC, where 65 percent of parents reported improvement.
  • While we often hear parents choose charters first and foremost because they are safer, 80 percent of DC parents and 79 percent of New Orleans parents said they chose a school because of academics, choosing over safety or location.
  • Choice isn’t easy. The survey found parents with less education, minority parents, and parents of children with special needs are more likely to have difficulty navigating choice. In DC, African-American and Latino parents were less optimistic about options than their white counterparts. In Baltimore, special ed families were far more likely to report problems finding the proper school than those without special needs.
  • And what does all this tell us? Out of the shoot, we can see this is a far more complicated issue than we may think it is. Even in cities with a history of strong choice and a number of school options, there is no clear path. For every parent choosing academics, there is likely one choosing safety and convenience. For every city saying choice is needed, there may also be a view that traditional public schools are improving.

And for all of the marketing that has gone into selling choice as the magic elixir that heals all in urban public education, parent perception hasn’t caught up to the sales pitch. There may be long wait lists for charters, but the reasons for such lists aren’t as crystal clear as some would like us to believe.

In battles over school choice and charters, proponents often try to make this a fight of statistics, believing they have the facts and figures to demonstrate that school choice is the only choice. But in reading between the lines of this data, we can also see that there is a whole lot of heart in this issue. Parents make choices for very emotional reasons. And those reasons may not be quantified on an Excel sheet or in a sales brochure.

Regardless, we need more data like this from CRPE. Data that forces us to look longer, examine deeper, and question more often.

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