When given options, do we always choose the best one?

School choice is all over the news. John Oliver recently lambasted charter school programs. Donald Trump promised $20 billion to increase parents’ choice options.  The NAACP has called for a moratorium on new charter schools. But how does school choice play out for ordinary families?

In essence, parents have two routes to exercise their consumer rights in education: choosing where they live and where they send their child to school. The fundamental premise behind “school choice” as an education reform are that options not only allow parents to select the school that best meets the needs of their child but it also breeds competition, thereby forcing schools to improve. We’ll leave the competition argument for another time and just focus on how parents make their decisions.

These days, it’s not unusual to find real estate websites boasting better school statistics than state education agencies, because they want to enhance the idea that parents can move to a “good” school district. Many of my friends have asked me where they should move with their toddler so that they can send their child to a high-quality school. Note: this option is typically more available for families with the means to move easily and afford a home in the districts perceived as “good.”

However, research from UCLA has shown that even middle- and high-income parents tend to choose schools based on the opinions of others in their network more than actual investigation of school characteristics. Of the parents who moved in order to be in a particular school district, less than a quarter actually visited the new school, and the majority did not look up test data for the district they were leaving. Such practices exacerbate racial and class-based segregation, as high-minority and lower-income schools are perceived as “bad” and low-minority, low-poverty schools are seen as “good.”

Policy makers and advocacy groups tend to focus more on the second avenue for choice, as they have little influence over parents’ housing choices. Magnet schools, in-district transfers, private schools, charter schools, and private school voucher programs are all choices individual school districts and communities provide to families. Basic economics tell us that in order to have healthy competition, consumers must have access to as many options as possible, as well as the necessary information to help them in making their decision.

The first reality we must face is that schools are a geographic commodity.  Most parents don’t want to send their child on a two-hour bus ride every morning to get to the school across town, so they are limited to schools that are in close proximity.  Second, it is extremely difficult to judge schools objectively. We have ample test data available, thanks to No Child Left Behind, but even if parents know how to access and understand test scores, they are highly correlated with poverty and race, so it does little to explain student growth or school climate.

Evidence from two cities with high levels of school choice show that parental choice and school behaviors tend to increase racial and socioeconomic segregation.In Washington, DC, parent preferences on a web-based application found that parents prioritized demographic preferences and geography over academic achievement. The authors also cautioned that open-choice programs could actually decrease pressure on schools for academic achievement, given parental preferences for particular demographic characteristics.


Studies from Stanford and the University of Texas at Austin of the post-Katrina system in New Orleans found that schools often found ways to recruit high-achieving students and push out students who were harder to serve, leaving these students with little, if any, choice.  Top-performing schools enrolled disproportionately large numbers of white, non-poor, and non-disabled students.

Sure, families want choice. Who doesn’t like choice? But we also have to make sure that we give families the tools to make good choices that benefit all students.

For more on school choice, check out this visual breakdown we created of what this popular reform strategy looks like by the numbers.

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