Why and how parents choose schools

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice recently released a study that seeks to better understand the decision-making processes of parents who send their children to private schools. The authors hypothesize that if state and local governments empower parents to choose the schools of their choice, a “spontaneous education order”—a state in which parents seek information about schools and in which schools make available the necessary information without public officials’ intentional intervention—will arise. Accountability, they speculate, will take care of itself.

To test this theory, they use survey data from 754 parents whose children received scholarships through the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program (GOAL). The survey sought to identify the factors involved in parents’ decisions and the types of data that informed those decisions.

GOAL was established in 2008 under Georgia’s Education Expense Credit Program. Under the law, taxpayers may receive a state income tax credit for contributions made to qualified “Student Scholarship Organizations” (SSOs). SSOs use these funds to award private school scholarships to families.

The law places no limits on recipients’ household incomes (i.e., it’s not “means-tested” for low-income families), and in fact the average adjusted gross income of recipient families was $51,923, slightly higher than the state’s 2012 median income. Scholarship recipients are approximately 60 percent white, 25 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 10 percent unknown/other.

Of the 2,685 families who had at least one child receiving a GOAL scholarship in 2013, only 754 provided complete data (a response rate of 28 percent). Survey respondents were slightly whiter, wealthier, and more educated than the average GOAL recipient’s family; 73 percent of survey respondents were white or Asian, 68 percent had a college degree, and 43 percent reported making more than $60,000 (14.2 percent reported making more than $96,000).

Because the sample is nonrandom, survey results should be interpreted cautiously. The key findings were as follows:

  • Better discipline, better learning environment, smaller class sizes, and improved student safety were identified as top factors by approximately half of all respondents. Only 10 percent of parents identified higher standardized-test scores as one of their top five reasons for choosing a private school, and none identified it as their top reason.
  • When asked what information they considered to be “important” in choosing a school, more than two-thirds of respondents identified student-teacher ratios, school accreditation, and curriculum and course descriptions. More than half identified college-acceptance rates and the presence of religious instruction.

The researchers also cut the data across urbanicity, education level, race, and socioeconomic status:

  • Lower-income parents (making below $60,000) were more likely than higher-income parents both to identify the opportunity for a religious education in their top two reasons for choosing a private school (41.9 percent versus 37.8 percent) and to place high school graduation and postsecondary information in their top two pieces of important information (19.1 percent versus 12.1 percent).
  • Non-white and non-Asian parents were more likely than white and Asian parents both to choose “better education” as their top reason for choosing a private school (40.5 percent versus 23.7 percent) and to place high school graduation rates and postsecondary information in their top two pieces of important decision-making information (54.1 percent compared to 27 percent).
  • Higher-income parents, college-educated parents, married parents, and white and Asian parents indicated that they would be willing to take slightly more steps to gain information about a school (such as tour the school, ask friends/neighbors, observe a classroom, etc.) than other parents.

The final question gets to the heart of the authors’ “spontaneous-educational-order” hypothesis. They ask parents whether a lack of information about a particular school would influence their decision to choose it for their children. Nearly 80 percent of respondents indicated that it would.

The authors interpret these findings to imply that parents of varying racial and socioeconomic identities choose private schools for many reasons, relying on diverse information from schools in the process. They conclude that instead of “burdening schools that participate in school choice programs with unnecessary regulations…policymakers should be empowering informed parents to make the best choice for the education of their children.”

I think this study is invaluable. It shows that low-income and minority families care deeply about the performance of their kids’ schools. It also shows, like Fordham’s What Parents Want study, that there is variation in family preferences.

This is part of the reason I no longer believe in neighborhood assigned schools for low-income families. They deserve and need educational choice—not just what others think is good for them.

I agree with the study’s authors that we ought to do all we can to make school information widely available so parents can make informed choices—that 80 percent figure is so encouraging. But I’m still of a mind that some level of regulation is needed (hence my belief in authorizers for private schools participating in public programs).

We allow a restaurant markets to develop, but we also have health codes.

We allow airline markets to develop, but we also have the FAA.

We should allow school markets to develop, but we need some baseline guards.

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