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Choosing Schools for Various Reasons

Popular opinion holds that parents choose a school primarily because of its academic rigor. At least that's the argument repeated time and again. But it's never been the case. The experience of Para Los Niños Charter School in downtown Los Angeles serves as a case in point ("Lessons from a disadvantaged children's charter school," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 24).

Founded in 2002, the charter school has a student enrollment of 410, which is 99 percent Hispanic and 96 percent low-income. Despite the demographics, the school's test scores are indistinguishable from many suburban public schools. Because Para Los Niños has twice as many applicants as openings, a lottery system is used. So what's the problem? The school has been unable to attract middle-class parents who live in the nearby gentrified area because the student-body turns these parents off.

It's hard to know exactly why this is so. If the school had poor test scores, perhaps I could understand their decision, even though standardized test scores don't reflect educational quality. But the scores are quite favorable. Are these same parents prejudiced? Again, I don't know. However, I hasten to point out that parents have long chosen schools for reasons that have little to do with academics. Holistic, social, logistic and administrative reasons have always played a prominent role in this regard. I support parental choice of schools, but I also believe that choice is hardly a panacea.

Therefore, before jumping to conclusions about the reasons that middle-class parents are avoiding Para Los Niños - or other schools like it - I urge readers to keep in mind that consumer choices are not always what they initially seem. That's why corporations have marketing departments to determine what is selling and what is not.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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