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School Choice Creates Challenges for Parents. What Are Cities Doing to Help?

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School choice has created unique challenges for cities—especially when it comes to making sure parents can navigate all the school options before them. 

Civic and community leaders across the country have been experimenting with solutions to help ease the process parents must face when applying and enrolling their children in cities with lots of public schooling choices. Indianapolis is the latest city to launch a single applicationand enrollment system for all of its district, magnet, and charter schools.

Click for more coverage of parent engagement in schools.

In Camden, N.J., parents can get a comprehensive guidebook on the city's schools that includes information on everything from school quality to family services.

In Boston, all students, regardless of whether they attend a school to which they are zoned or one that they choose, have access to free transportation.

But when it comes to selecting schools in a choice-rich city, finding good information and easy ways to compare options remains a huge challenge, especially for low-income families. And competition between traditional schools and charter schools can get in the way of developing policies that will help families.

Those are among the findings in a study from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, one of two reports out this month that look at how parents react to having more school choices.

How Cities Are Helping Parents With School Choice

The CRPE report examines 18 cities and the various policies in place to help parents sort through all their options to get their children into schools that are a good fit.

Similar to CRPE's previous work, the report argues that offering families a lot of school choices doesn't necessarily guarantee access. For example, some cities, such as Los Angeles, give parents lots of options but not a lot of support, and that's a serious disadvantage to poor parents.

"Families who are more well-off purchase guides from private companies or hire enrollment consultants to coach them through the choice process," write the CRPE report's authors. "Those services make sense, as entrepreneurs seek to fill a real void for families, but they also advantage parents who can afford to pay for help."

The report highlights resources and policies from across the 18 cities it profiles that CRPE researchers believe are having an impact on making the school choice process more digestible for parents. Among them:

  • Guidebooks that include information not just on the academic quality of schools, but also special education services and school culture. The report cites Camden's guidebook as an example.
  • Support organizations, that are neutral toward charter and district schools, and that help families, especially those who can't afford to hire school choice consultants. One such organization is the Washington D.C.-based group called DC School Reform Now. EdNavigator in New Orleans is another.
  • Getting neighborhood input before allowing a school to open in an area. For example, in Denver, local communities get to vote on charter operators that first have been screened by the school district.

You can find the full report and profiles on individual cities here: "Stepping Up, How Are American Cities Delivering on the Promise of Public School Choice?"

Does School Choice Turn Parents Into Savvier Consumers?

While the CRPE report examined how school choice is working for parents, a separate study from Education Next, a journal published by Stanford University's Hoover Institution, looked at whether parents are working for school choice.

The original motivation behind school choice policy is that market-style competition among schools would raise their academic performance. For that to happen, however, parents must know which schools are academically the best, and they must choose them.

But when given the chance to pick schools, do parents actually become more informed consumers?

It appears they do. EdNext found from analyzing search data on GreatSchools.org that giving parents the option to choose schools—whether they be charter or other traditional district schools—incentivized them to do more research on school quality.

You can read the report, as well as the resarchers' methodology, here: "(Re)Searching for a School, How Choice Drives More Parents to Become Informed." 

This finding has implications for school choice policy, write the report's authors. Because parents don't necessarily seek out information on school quality simply because it exists, school choice policies have the added benefit of motivating parents to become better informed, they write.

"Given prior findings that clear information about school quality can lead parents to choose schools that increase student achievement, our study highlights the potential value of pairing choice policies with easily accessible data on school quality," the report's authors write.

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