NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Lessons from the Trenches on Making School Choice Work

August 17, 2015

What school a child attends is determined in largely by where they live.  Nearly three-quarters of American children attend schools based on residence.  Assigning students to their neighborhood schools results in educational opportunities that are stratified by race and class. School choice is one answer to this challenge. Proponents of school choice argue that untethering school enrollment from residential location levels the playing field for less advantaged families, who often are unable to compete with more affluent families to buy a house near a good public school. 

Research conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education lends evidence to school choice as an effective tool to promote educational equity.  Many less advantaged families will take advantage of school choice when provided the option. But, more attention should be paid to barriers families face when choosing a school. 

A survey of 4,000 public school parents in eight "high choice" cities (Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.) found: 

  • One-in-three reported difficulty understanding eligibility requirements.
  • One-in-four reported struggling to get information about their public school options and to find transportation.
  • One-in-five reported trouble with the enrollment system.

Families with lower levels of educational attainment were much more likely to report difficulty with all of these issues.

While efforts to reduce barriers in choosing a school help, they do not address that demand for quality schools far outstrips the number of seats available.  Nearly half of the parents surveyed reported having no other option they\'d be happy with, and four-in-ten said the available schools were not a good fit for their child.

In many cities, getting a handle on the supply side of school choice requires aggressive action by those who lead urban school systems -- superintendents and school districts, but also charter school operators and authorizers.

Source: Ashley Jochim, "Lessons from the Trenches on Making School Choice Work," Brookings Institute, August 12, 2015.

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