Accountability Opinion

Dear Secretary Betsy DeVos, Don’t Overlook Parents

By Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj — September 19, 2017 4 min read
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Just over seven months have passed since you assumed the role of U.S. secretary of education, and the controversy over your support of school choice has not waned. Critics and supporters of school choice policies alike have raised concerns about what your proposed expansion of school choice could mean for the future of public education in the United States. I share many of those apprehensions, especially given the lack of convincing evidence that vouchers improve students’ academic outcomes and the problems we’ve seen with poor accountability and limited oversight in the charter sector, including in your home state of Michigan.

Today, I write to you about another important issue that has received only minor attention: the implications of choice policies for parents. You have been upfront about your belief that more choice will put pressure on schools to improve and adapt, in large part because of parents’ demand for certain kinds of schools in an education marketplace. Echoing some of the original school choice advocates’ claims, you’ve argued that “every [schooling] option should be held accountable, but they should be directly accountable to parents and communities, not to Washington, D.C., bureaucrats.”


According to that logic, parents are, in essence, the school accountability system. If granted the freedom to choose what is best for their children, they are expected to enact this accountability through their school selections. What you fail to acknowledge with this argument is that choice policies can also create a tremendous burden for families and that not all families have the same social and financial resources or time to effectively navigate choice systems and make informed decisions.

Some school systems—such as New York City’s, where colleagues and I have conducted research—include hundreds of different schools (of widely varying quality) and a complex array of admissions criteria. To understand the available options and maximize their children’s chances of being admitted to the most desirable schools, some parents dedicate hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to researching their options, visiting schools, and paying for tutors, test preparation, or other supports.

Other parents, however, may not have access to information in a language they comprehend and may be unfamiliar with school choice procedures and mandates; consequently, parents may defer decisions to their child’s school counselor, an older sibling, or the child herself. My research with Latin American immigrant families in New York City bears this out. Where choice is optional, families may not pursue alternative educational opportunities either because they are unaware of them or because they are unable to comply with onerous school application requirements.

Not all families have the same social and financial resources or time to effectively navigate choice systems and make informed decisions."

Even in districts with fewer school choice options than New York City, parents may face significant obstacles to engaging in choice. Many charter schools require parents to participate in school-based lotteries for admission. That means parents often have to submit multiple applications if they want their child to be considered for different schools.

Some districts, including Denver; Newark, N.J.; and the District of Columbia; have moved to a single application form for both traditional public and charter schools, but substantial barriers remain. Translated versions of informational materials about school choice offerings are frequently inadequate or not available at all. What is more, school districts have increasingly moved to exclusively online formats to disseminate information, which leaves out students and families without regular internet access. All of this raises serious questions about whether school choice policies will exacerbate or counteract educational inequities. What can be done to reduce the likelihood that such policies will only increase the educational opportunity gap?

You are uniquely positioned to take steps to reduce obstacles for families who wish to participate in school choice and to help states, districts, and schools fulfill their responsibility to facilitate informed choice.

First, you should prioritize school choice policies that limit barriers to access. Required applications, school visits, or other mandates often make access harder for lower-income families. You should use the federal policy and funding levers under your authority to emphasize these priorities.

Next, you should ensure that all states and districts with school choice policies meet a minimum standard for public-information dissemination. This includes providing accurate translation and interpretation of materials in the most commonly spoken languages. They should also be available in printed as well as electronic mediums.

Finally, you should allocate funds for more district- and school-level staff, materials, and outreach around school choice to help those districts with large populations of high-needs students promote informed school choice. The Welcome Centers operated by the Boston school system could serve as a model of the kinds of services your administration should expand at a national scale.

Merely enacting more school choice policies does not produce greater choice for parents or better educational opportunities for all students. Policies must be designed and implemented with awareness of the different resources that families have at their disposal, and they must take into account families’ diverse preferences and perspectives. I urge you to consider the implications of your school choice proposals for all parents as you move forward.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2017 edition of Education Week as Dear Secretary Betsy DeVos


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