Database: Giving Parents What They Want

The idea of school choice appeals to parents, but the reality is something else

Patte Barth

School choice advocates got a big boost with the election of the new administration. President Trump had campaigned on a promise to invest $20 billion in private and public school choice. He followed up by naming Betsy DeVos, a leading voice in the nation’s school choice campaign, to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

Trump’s immediate predecessors also promoted choice in the form of public charter schools. But the Trump agenda goes further by calling for federal dollars to follow low-income students into the school of their choice, whether private, public, or home school. If enacted, public education in the U.S. will take a giant step closer to Milton Freidman’s free-market vision of independent schools operating under the “invisible hand without substituting the dead hand of bureaucracy.” In Freidman’s world, competition for consumers— aka parents—will determine which schools survive. Theoretically, these would be better schools by virtue of parent demand. That’s turning out to be a big assumption.

Freidman first made his case in 1955, but it took three more decades for it to gain traction as public policy. Beginning in the 1980s, public magnet and charter schools began to appear in district portfolios. Cities led by Milwaukee and Cleveland started programs providing tax-supported vouchers for low-income children to take to private schools. The president’s proposal is just the most recent attempt to expand schools of choice by policymakers and a growing army of advocacy groups.

To be sure, the idea of school choice has a lot of appeal on its own merits. Various polls show that the public supports public school choice and charter schools by about a two-thirds majority, although fewer than half approve of vouchers. Yet, despite the policy’s popularity, at least in regard to public school choice, the bulk of our students still attend their neighborhood school.

According to the Center for Public Education’s calculations, only 10 percent of the school-aged population is enrolled in private schools—a proportion that has remained fairly steady for 40 years. This includes the half of 1 percent who are voucher students. In contrast, choice in the public sector has grown.

In 2012, 37 percent of public school parents reported that public school choice was available to their children. Yet fewer than half take advantage of it. About 16 percent of school-aged children attend a public school of choice, which includes magnet and charter schools, and inter-intra-district transfers. Both parents of students in the “assigned” and those in “chosen” schools overwhelmingly report that their child’s school was their first choice, 78 and 79 percent respectively. In addition, they are satisfied with their school by similar margins.

So parents like having choices, but when presented with the opportunity, most are content with the neighborhood school. There are a few possible explanations for this.

First, proximity to home ranks high among the factors parents consider when choosing a school.

New Orleans and Washington, D.C., have wide-ranging school choice programs, both in the form of charter schools and vouchers. Analysts have examined the rankings parents provide when applying for open seats in these cities as a means to discern the characteristics they value most. Not surprisingly, parents tend to eliminate schools with the lowest academic performance as their first filter. However, the importance placed on performance varies when combined with other factors.

For example, New Orleans parents were more likely to choose an elementary school located across the street that earned a “C” performance grade over a “B” school that is two miles away, especially if after-school care was also available. However, D.C. parents confronted with a choice between schools with the lowest and highest ratings were found to be willing to send their child up to seven miles further away to attend the higher-performing school.

These and other studies show that parents are most likely to flee low-performing schools. But schools with average ratings are still desirable if other factors come into play, notably location, as well as extracurriculars, after-school care, diversity, and reputation. This suggests another reason so many parents choose the neighborhood school. Despite some isolated successes, Freidman’s invisible hand has yet to produce schools of choice that are universally better than traditional public schools.

The charter school research out of Stanford University is illustrative. Analysts there created statistical “virtual twins,” enabling them to compare charter school performance to that of its “virtual” traditional public school. They found that, in reading, about one in four charter schools outperformed its traditional counterpart, while one in five performed worse. Most were about the same. A different picture emerges when looking only at urban charter schools, more than half of which outperformed their “twins.” On the other hand, two-thirds of virtual charters were found to be a far worse choice for students.

Research on voucher programs has been similarly mixed. Past studies have shown a small or no impact on achievement, although there is some suggestion of higher graduation rates. However, a recent major study of the statewide Louisiana voucher program found that, after two years, students in the program had actually lost ground in both reading and math.

Clearly, there is excellent work being done by some schools of choice. But the fact remains that the results overall have not lived up to the free-marketers’ promises.

Still another reason parents are choosing the neighborhood school is that districts are providing more choices within the school building. Parents looking for different experiences for their child don’t always have to leave for another school. From Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs to dual-language immersion to Career Academies, public schools are increasingly looking to expand the choices they provide students that appeal to their different interests. In addition, public schools continue to strengthen services for gifted students, English language learners, and children with special needs. And public schools are offering these choices while continuing to assure all students receive the foundation of knowledge and skills that prepares them for success after high school, regardless of their personal goals.

We can all agree that choice is a good thing. When public schools effectively respond to diverse individuals with different interests and needs, students are more engaged and are more likely to do better. But school choice, in and of itself, has not been shown to produce better results for students. Rather, school leaders would do better to look to the high-performing programs and schools in their districts for lessons about what can work elsewhere. When every public school is a good choice for students, districts will be giving parents what they really want.

Patte Barth ( is the director of NSBA’s Center for Public Education. Learn more about school choice and other topics at

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