Special Report
Families & the Community Reported Essay

Why Don’t Parents Always Choose the Best Schools?

By Arianna Prothero — January 07, 2020 6 min read
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Give parents choice, and they’ll flock to the best schools. Those schools will then flourish, either forcing poorly performing ones to improve or edging them out entirely.

The idea is appealing in its simplicity: Introduce competition into public education, and market pressure will improve schools more efficiently than the government ever could.

There’s also a compelling moral component to school choice: Freeing families from their zoned neighborhood schools can give low-income kids immediate access to higher-quality schools.

School choice, many advocates argue, is not just a policy, it’s a right.

These ideas are the pillars of the school choice movement. And they have been raised repeatedly by none other than the U.S. secretary of education, Betsy DeVos.

But parents don’t necessarily pick schools for their academic performance. And if school quality is not driving parent choice, what is?

Sometimes it’s practical considerations, such as location. While there may be a better school across town, a family may not be able to realistically get there.

Then, there are the ways that the brain processes information, and how that subconsciously drives our actions. The reality is, parents—like all people—often do not make decisions with the cool, calculated rationality policymakers and academics may expect. They often react to the world and systems around them in surprising and less than optimal ways.

In the five years that I have covered school choice for Education Week, I found this among the most compelling and underexamined aspects of school choice policy. So I have put this question, “What are some of the unseen influences on parent choices?” to several experts who study this very topic, to shine a light on what is often a black box of parent decisionmaking.

What they had to say complicates the tidy idea that infusing market-style competition into education, whether it be from charter schools, private school vouchers, or district open-enrollment policies, will make schools more responsive to parents’ wants.

Choosing and applying to schools is hard, and it is time consuming. Parents have to search for reliable information. They have to make sense of that information. They have to weigh their priorities and limitations. And oftentimes, to give their children the best chance to get into a high-quality school, even a public one, they must apply to multiple schools with different application requirements and deadlines.

Or, they don’t have to do any of that.

Parents—like all people—often do not make decisions with the cool, calculated rationality policymakers and academics may expect. ”

In order to cut back on the burden, whether it’s choosing schools or cars or salad dressings, people take mental shortcuts. One of them is to pass on making a decision altogether.

This is where we can tap the field of behavioral economics—which is basically fusing economics and psychology to understand human decisionmaking.

There are several other types of mental shortcuts people take, according to Ben Castleman, an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia.

People put off making choices, which may mean missing deadlines for school applications.

One strategy, Castleman said, is to “rely on some kind of social norm or social reference. So, especially when we face uncertain decisions, it’s pretty common to say, ‘Well, what do other people I know do? What do people like me do?’”

He added that people can also “use some other kind of simplifying rule or decision.” That might mean picking a school because it’s in a nicer building, or it’s just easier to get to.

The systems that support the school choice infrastructure can also affect parent decisionmaking, sometimes in unintentional ways.

For example: You may think the more choice the better. But give people too many school options, and they can become overwhelmed. People handle that feeling by doing the opposite of what policymakers expect: They stick with the status quo; in this case, the school they were zoned for.

Even the ways in which schools are arranged and presented to parents on an informational website can affect their decisionmaking.

This is an idea that Jon Valant, a fellow with the Brookings Institution, studies. He found that something as seemingly innocuous as the default order in which schools are listed on a website—for example, whether they’re listed by location or by academic ranking—can influence which schools parents select. Switching the default sort from a school’s location to its letter grade, made parents more likely to choose a higher-performing school, even if it was farther from their home.

If people were completely rational decisionmakers, this stuff wouldn’t matter, Valant told me. But it does. A lot. And it has big implications for policymakers—should they be nudging parents toward high-performing schools? And how would they do that?

None of this is to say that academic quality is not important to parents—it is—but it’s competing with our built-in psychological quirks as well as lots of practical considerations, such as transportation and availability of after-school programs.

And that competition for mental headspace is fiercer for low-income parents, said Huriya Jabbar, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies school choice. Because low-income parents have fewer resources, making decisions, whether it be about budgeting or schools, is simply more mentally taxing.

It’s like packing for a trip with a suitcase that is too small, to borrow a metaphor from research on behavioral economics and poverty.

Every single item has to be weighed against the other, and it’s a more cognitively complex decision, said Jabbar.

So, are the choices parents make—or don’t make—undermining policymakers’ hopes that choice and competition will force schools to improve?

Not entirely, argued Douglas Harris, a professor of economics at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he studies the city’s unique all-choice school system. There are a lot of other reasons that K-12 public education can’t function like a normal marketplace.

For example, in a typical market, people can choose not to take part, but everyone must go to school.

“And the implication of that is low-performing schools don’t necessarily close down,” Harris said, because they will still get students. “So, when you hear choice advocates say, ‘The school is full, they must be doing something right’—not necessarily.”

You may think at this point that this piece has been building toward an indictment of school choice, a call to abandon it.

Unfortunately, dear reader, I don’t intend to leave you with the satisfaction of any such closure.

There is some research that has shown market pressures do improve school performance. And there are many other potential benefits of school choice—such as higher college enrollment rates—that I haven’t addressed here.

And while school choice may not deliver on the predictions and promises made by economists, policymakers, and advocates, I’d wager just about every parent wants control—even though they may not think of it as school choice—over where they send their children to school.

Whether it’s enrolling in a charter school, buying a house in a neighborhood with good schools, or even making no decision and sticking with the default zoned school, choice is everywhere.

There are many important and passionate debates in education that deserve our attention.

And there is a slow brewing one now over the extent to which policymakers should be nudging people toward certain choices and actions. Is it government’s duty to help parents navigate the wilderness of choice or is it just paternalistic and big brotherish?

I don’t have the answer.

But I put it to you that this still relatively obscure debate is one worth having.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2020 edition of Education Week as Why Don’t Parents Always Choose the Best Schools?


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