School & District Management

Parents Confront Obstacles as School Choice Expands

By Arianna Prothero — January 20, 2015 7 min read
Mariela and Gibson Thomas and their four children attend a school-choice fair at Southwest Middle School in Denver last week.
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In New Orleans, Denver, and the District of Columbia, it’s the season when families must choose schools for next fall.

But in those cities and others where traditional school boundaries are fluid and more charters and tuition-voucher programs have entered the mix of K-12 options, selecting a school is an increasingly complex endeavor.

Research shows that an abundance of school choice doesn’t guarantee access, and many parents in high-choice cities struggle to find adequate information, transportation, and, ultimately, the right school for their children.

“It was very hard, and very time-consuming,” New Orleans resident Carrie Fisher said of trying to find a school for her daughter, who entered kindergarten last fall. “I’m educated, I have a bachelor’s degree, ... and I do have time to read articles online and research things.”

Part of the argument for school choice is based on the idea that consumer demand for good schools will increase their supply and starve out their poorly performing counterparts.

But parents, especially those with less education or with children who have special needs, face multiple barriers when choosing a school, according to an ongoing series of reports from the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.

This issue has long raised questions among advocates inside and outside the school choice movement about how much of the burden of quality assurance should rest with parents, and what role local governments or other entities should play in regulating the school choice marketplace.

Choices Multiply

The numbers of charters and private-school-choice programs—such as publicly funded vouchers to private schools and state-incentivized tax-credit-scholarship programs—have been rising. The number of charter schools has been growing nationally by 6 percent to 7 percent a year since 2008, according to data from the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a Washington-based advocacy and research organization. Currently, about 2.3 million students are enrolled in the publicly financed but independently run schools.

The number of students using private-school-choice programs hasn’t been rising as fast as those in charters. But data from the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice show that the number of such students more than doubled, to over 260,000 participants, from 2005 to 2013. The foundation estimated that the number for 2014 would exceed 300,000.

But as choices multiply, new problems crop up, often with no clear entity to take charge of solving them.

Ms. Fisher, the New Orleans parent, works full time. She estimates that she spent more than 20 hours visiting schools, filling out applications, and talking to other parents to make her decision. It took several more hours to sign up for schools through New Orleans’ new common enrollment system. In the end, her daughter landed a spot in Bricolage Academy, the family’s first choice.

“My personal problems with the system, I’ve overcome them,” Ms. Fisher said. But “there are roadblocks for other people who don’t have a flexible job, can’t go to the open houses, and don’t have transportation.”

Ms. Fisher’s observation echoes what researchers with the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education found when they surveyed 4,000 public school parents in eight cities with large numbers of school choice programs—Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington—last spring. They also examined data from 35 cities.

The survey showed that the biggest roadblocks parents encountered were understanding eligibility requirements, arranging transportation, and getting information about schools. A variety of applications and different deadlines, as well as confusing paperwork, were also major impediments. The survey also showed that those issues were exacerbated for parents with less education and for families of students with special needs.

Daniel S. Varner has seen many of those issues play out in Detroit, where he is the chief executive officer of Excellent Schools Detroit, an organization that works to improve public education in the city.

“There’s a real lack of accessible information,” he said. “I mean access to literal information, and then when you get it, having it simple enough and robust enough to be meaningful.”

Equalizing the Process

Excellent Schools Detroit has been trying to fill that need by grading schools in the city using a common set of metrics. Parents, teachers, and outside education experts help evaluate school performance and culture, and the results are published in an annual score card.

Having comparable information across sectors is a major step toward removing the information barrier for families, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education. In some cities, the effort is taken on by an organization like Excellent Schools Detroit; elsewhere, districts and charter schools collaborate to create common performance measures.

Several cities also hold fairs or expos where families can get information on different schools and the application process all in one place.

But Mr. Varner said the efforts can’t stop there. “If it’s going to be a market, it has to be regulated properly,” he said of school choice.

For Mr. Varner, that means having stronger authorizer oversight in Michigan that results in opening better-performing schools and closing poorly performing ones.

He also believes that Detroit would benefit from an entity to take charge of coordinating transportation, school locations, and enrollment across all the city’s public schools, including charters.

A handful of cities—Denver, Newark, N.J., New Orleans, and Washington—are pioneering efforts to streamline and equalize the application and enrollment process. Usually called a universal or common enrollment system, those efforts set up a single process with one application and one set of deadlines to apply for most district and charter schools in a given city.

New Orleans’ system, called OneApp, also allows parents to apply for vouchers to private schools. Excellent Schools Detroit recently commissioned a report urging its city to do the same.

“There’s much more transparency in the process,” said Mr. Varner. “I would argue now that parents who are well connected can game the system, and schools can game the system.”

For example, a single system with an algorithm matching students to schools based in part on a list of top picks submitted by parents can make it harder for schools to “cream” the best students or turn away those with special needs, said Betheny M. Gross, a senior analyst and research director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

But the system in New Orleans hasn’t worked so optimally for some.

Ms. Fisher went through the enrollment lottery via the OneApp system three times to get her top choice. The schools her child was matched to in the first two attempts were not bad, she said—they just weren’t the right fit for her family.

Education Marketplace

Having a large enough supply of good choices is also a challenge.

“If there are no openings [in higher-performing schools], you get a place in the school that has openings,” said Doris Roche-Hicks, the CEO of a group of three charters called Friends of King Schools in New Orleans. “If you’re a school with a D grade, you’re still getting children.”

Such testimony raises the question: Even with an array of options, do parents really have choices?

The researchers at the Center on Reinventing Public Education tried to find the answer in their survey. They asked parents if they had any other good option aside from their current school; nearly half said no.

Research shows that parents are likely to rate the school their child attends as good, and, as the report’s authors note, “school choice implies that parents can choose from two or more alternatives.”

Some school choice supporters argue that as officials ramp up regulations and create features such as common performance measurements and shared enrollment and transportation systems, those arrangements begin to resemble a regular school district.

“This is the $64,000 question in school choice right now,” said Patrick J. Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. “What form should choice take, and how should it be regulated to serve the public interest and the private benefit of those participating?”

He said there’s been an evolution in opinion about how much support parents need and, ultimately, how much parental demand can really regulate the education marketplace. The debate, Mr. Wolf said, lies in how to help parents without hijacking the process.

Overall, the most recent study from the parent-survey data gathered by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that even cities that have done a lot to support families in the choice process still have more work to do to help them navigate increasingly complex landscapes. But, despite those obstacles, a majority of the parents surveyed are still opting to choose their schools when given the opportunity.

Ms. Fisher, who lives in one of the rare places where there is no option but choice, has some reservations, but believes the education offerings in New Orleans are improving.

“I’m splitting hairs,” said the lifetime New Orleans resident of deciding among her top five school choices for her daughter. “They’re all fine ... compared to what were the choices my whole life: mediocre public schools.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as Parents Confront Obstacles as School Choice Expands


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