How Families Choose Public Schools- Where’s the EQUITY for ALL?


The beauty of the American democratic process is the access to choice. A pexels-photo-256491.jpegA child’s education is considered as one of the most important things that any parent can give, which is why most parents do take their time in choosing where to send their child to school. A question that parents always think about first is whether they should send their child to a public or private school. However, before that becomes a choice, parents must determine whether they can afford to send their child to a private school. Large numbers of parents do not have the luxury of choice.

Besides the obvious financial affordability, parents seem to ‘choose’ public schools for various reasons nonetheless. Even within the public school systems, there is still choice- between neighborhood schools, specialty schools, and schools outside of immediate neighborhoods. In fact, some parents go out of their way to enroll their child in a school outside of their communities for reasons like: increased diversity and ‘better teachers’, resources, or distance from their work. Yet, there is choice in public schools, and parents are making decisions based on many reasons, some of which you nor I would not readily consider.

School choice programs are a major component and they are controversial. Proponents argue that allowing parents to choose schools for their children has the potential to reduce racial and socioeconomic segregation and enhance equity in public education. Opportunities to choose schools have long been available to families that could afford to move to areas with good schools or enroll their children in private schools. Choice programs aim to extend similar opportunities to families of all statuses, no matter where they live. Critics claim, however, that inequities can get worse if more affluent and white families take greater advantage of choice programs their disadvantaged counterparts. Even more worrisome, parents might choose schools based on non-academic factors like racial composition.

Parents can find it difficult to choose among many schools, rather than simply sending children to assigned schools. The spread of magnet schools and citywide or charter schools means that, in many places, each individual school uses its own enrollment system. Parents can be faced with a bewildering variety of procedures to navigate. In Denver, Colorado, for example, parents had to deal with more than 60 different school application procedures and deadlines, if they wanted to enroll their children in schools other than those in their neighborhood or assigned by default.

So much complexity makes it very costly for many families to exercise rights to choose schools – and creates especially high burdens for less advantaged families and single parents. Decentralized and highly varied procedures also make it possible for particular schools to ‘game’ the system – by counseling out difficult students or being more selective in practice than the law supposedly allows.

Denver, like many other state and local school systems, adopted a single, comprehensive choice system. Under the new arrangements, parents submit a single application form, specifying preferences for any district-run or charter public school in the city for which their children are eligible. All parents receive comprehensive information before they rank up to five public schools. Each step in the process happens on a common timeline and all assignments are announced at the same time. Students are matched to schools with the aid of agreed rules.

The data in such systems shows that:

  • Most families participate, particularly when students transition to kindergarten, 6th grade, and 9th grade – when students are more likely to be changing schools. For those grades, applications  get submitted for roughly 70 percent of students and families that submit applications are highly likely to get one of the schools they choose.
  • About three-quarters of students will get assigned to their first choice school, and more than 90 percent get assigned to one of the five schools their parents list. 

    L BROWN

​However, important gaps remain in the systems following similar procedures.

  • School choices are more likely to be submitted by white and more affluent families than by Hispanic, black, and less affluent families. 
  • Participation in the system is also higher for parents of children currently enrolled in schools with average levels of performance, compared to parents of children in the lowest-performing schools.

So what guides parents’ choices? Parents choose public schools because:

  • They look for academic quality. As the average school-wide test scores rise, parents are more likely to place them on their list of choices.
  • School performance tends to be very important to non-white families, and especially Hispanic families.
  • White families appear more sensitive to racial composition than Hispanic or African- American families.
  • As the proportion of Hispanic or Black students in schools  increase, white families are less likely to list these schools on their applications. The same is not true for black or Hispanic families.

In most American cities, racial and ethnic groups live in different areas, and high-performing schools tend to be in more affluent white areas. Because black, hispanic and low-income families tend not to live near high-performing schools, these families face real trade-offs in choosing local or high-scoring schools.

What can we conclude about the preferences of parents? To the extent that high-scoring schools are available in a school system, parents will try to steer their children toward them. But simply allowing parents to choose does not correct for the reality that many families do not live near good schools and cannot easily send their children far away. Even efficient and transparent choice programs cannot eliminate inequities, unless we find additional ways to improve schools everywhere.

The root of equity in public education and choice: improve schools to each meet the quality standards of resources and staff as the highest-performing school in any one district. Therefore, we level the playing field in school choice. Learning styles and specialty curriculum preference[ in addition to a required core curriculum] become the ultimate component of choice. Every Student has an equal opportunity to succeed no matter where they attend school, and all schools are well, not minimally, resourced-THAT’S EQUITY!

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