school choice

For the past several months, it had felt like the only time we hear someone in politics or journalism talk about education, it’s to talk about school choice. If you’re not a big News person, “School Choice” usually refers to the idea that parents should be able to pull their child out of their neighborhood public school in favor of a charter school* or a voucher/Education Savings Account**. According to Betsy DeVos and many others who support privatizing education, parents want more choice and prefer sending their kids to non-traditional schools.

schoolchoicememe
Somehow, this was the least partisan school choice meme I could find.

So I wanted to know: What do parents really want? And I decided to find out by asking the folks who are going to be most impacted by the School Choice Movement: families preparing their children for kindergarten. I wrote a survey and shared it on Twitter, in a few blogging communities, and on my Facebook page; I encouraged folks to share the survey to get a diverse group of participants.

Who participated in the survey?

  • 30 parents/guardians participated
  • Participants live in eight different states – and one is Canadian (hello, Northern Neighbor!)
  • 60% of participants have one child not yet in kindergarten, 33% have two, and 7% of you have three or more
  • 10% of participants are raising a child with a disability or special education plan
does kid have disability
In this area, participants’ responses match up with national averages! Neat! #NerdMoments

How many different schools do parents have to choose from?

  • Parents have an average of 3 or 4 (3.533 to be exact) different kinds of schools to choose from, including:
    • Public schools
    • Magnet schools
    • Charter schools
    • Private religious schools
    • Private, non-religious schools
    • Homeschooling and homeschool coops
  • Everyone has access to a public school
  • 77% of participants have access to a private religious school, while just 40% have a non-religious private school in their neighborhood

What’s most important to parents when it comes to choosing a kindergarten? Your top five priorities were:

  1. Quality of teachers (83% of participants selected this)
  2. Cost (47% selected)
  3. Proximity to your home/work (43%)
  4. Diversity of the staff and student body (also 43%)
  5. How your child feels about the school (40%)

Just as telling, very few participants prioritized student test scores (16%) or religious beliefs (6.7%) (that kinda’ surprised me since I shared the survey with many Christian parenting bloggers!).  A few parents had other priorities as well:

“The ability to have my child be able to learn and explore at his own rate and unique way regardless of special needs and differences.” ~Pam, Colorado

“[Whether the school] Instills passion and interests in children”. ~Lindsey, Alberta (Canada)

To me, this highlights the difference between what educators and policy-makers say is important (test scores and competitive academic programs), and what parents consider important.

School choice isn’t just about what schools are in our town – and sometimes, it’s not about what we care most about, either. It’s also about what we can realistically manage as families. So I asked participants:

What school choices are realistic for your family?

  • On average, participants had just 2 realistic choices, compared to 3.53 possible choices. So right away, we can see that opening more types of schools doesn’t necessarily add up to providing more accessible options.
  • For almost everyone (94%), public schools were a realistic choice. And for nearly one-third of participants, they were the only realistic choice.
  • To better understand these results, I asked participants, “What does realistic mean to you?”
    • Over 70% of participants said that realistic means affordable: Something that is within our ability financially, whether that means working less [so we can] homeschool, paying out of pocket to attend private schools, or public schools. Private schools in this area are too expensive. -Kittie, TN
    • Another 20% said that the logisitics of getting kids to/from school made a difference: “If our family can manage it financially and logistically, as in transportation–most of the options don’t have bus service.”-Erin, FL
    • But for some parents, the question was moot: “We have great public schools where we live (and pay plenty for them via property taxes) so I have no real motivation to consider other options.” – Lillie, VT
      “He will be our 6th homeschooled child. The oldest three began in public school, the last three began/will begin with home education.” -Pam, CO

Part of why the school choice/school privatization movement has been so successful is by claiming that parents aren’t happy with their local schools and demand more choices. I wanted to know if that’s really the case, so I asked four open-ended questions related to this topic: How do you feel about your local school district, what would you change about the process of choosing a school, how do you feel about the amount of choice offered to you, and how do you feel about the ways politicians and the media talk about school choice? A few themes emerged in your responses, so let’s discuss them!

How do you feel about your local schools?

  • Of the 28 responses to this question, only 9 participants (30%) had negative feelings about their district. Of these negative feelings, most of them were related to systematic and administrative issues, not academics, discipline, or the kids:
    • The superintendent doesn’t always recognize the needs [of the community]. For example, the principal at the high school needs to be fired. He’s a misogynistic pig and has said some things that caused a few female students to start homeschool in their senior year. ~Myca, OH
    • I have a lot of issues with [our district]. Overall, the teachers and staff do not seem to care about separation of church and state. The schools are also reward-based schools, often rewarding children for the involvement of the parents and not on merit of the children alone, which I find disgusting and alienating. (Example: Kids are awarded special privileges for selling items for the school, but it’s parents who really have to do the selling. The children whose parents can’t sell these items get singled out and aren’t allowed to participate in events). ~Kittie, TN
    • I feel like the bad schools don’t get the attention they need to help raise them up because most are in lower income areas, and most focus is out on the middle and upper class areas. There are several schools that need new buildings that aren’t even really being considered right now. ~Shari, TN
  • Nearly half (13/30) of respondents had positive feelings about their school district:
    • Its actually really excellent. [This] county has a really good school district, I have friends who are jealous that they live in TN and can’t go to a GA school. ~Deborah, GA
    • I feel very confident. Especially with the uncertain direction the federal government is taking in education, I believe that my local school board and my county will protect our interests. ~Olya, MD
    • This area has lots of good options. ~Anonymous, CA 
    • We love it! ~Meredith, VT 
  • The remaining 6 respondents had mixed or neutral feelings:
    • I have very negative feelings about the administration but I want to support teachers and other families within the district. ~Tara, TN
    • I don’t know much, but have negative stereotypes about it being really white and really country. ~Maggie, TN

Participants responses to the questions What would you change about the process of choosing a school? and How do you feel about the amount of choice you have? overlapped quite a bit. Three main themes emerged from the responses: Equity, Simplicity, and Accessible Options

  • Survey participants on Equity:
    • [I want it to] not depend on what geographic area you can afford to live in. We’re lucky that we can move somewhere with a good school, but many people aren’t. Also, we would have many more issues if we lived in Washington DC like some of our friends. The DC school district has far more problems.-Shannon, MD
    • I would like a more equitable school system in which every parent is satisfied with sending their child/ren to their neighborhood public school ~Tara, TN
    • I’d like people to be equally familiar with all options, including homeschool. ~Pam, CO
  • Survey Participants on Simplicity:
    • There are lots of options, but I’d rather there be less choice. I just want them to go to good public schools. It’s that simple. ~Rebecca, CA
    • Why can’t they just guarantee kids a spot in the closest school? ~Anonymous, Colorado
    • I don’t feel at all informed about our “school choice” period, which makes it feel like getting into a good public school is not accessible. And I’m pretty good with the internet–imagine how people with limited means feel. ~Erin, FL
  • Survey Participants on Accessible Choices:
    • For parents that have to send their kids to public schools, it would be nice to have a little say in which school. We live within minutes of at least 4 elementary schools, and I have absolutely no choice but to send my child to the school he is zoned for which just happens to be the worst of all of the schools in my area. ~Shari, TN
    • More options listed. For example parents need to know of homeschooling options and how to do it, as well as zoning and how to get everything you need for the school.~Deborah, GA
    • Not everyone who talked about a lack of choice actually wanted to take advantage of additional options, though: There isn’t a nonreligious private or charter school within a realistic driving distance for us, so we don’t have much choice. But I am a believer in public school. Even with more choice, we would most likely choose public for philosophical reasons.-Vanessa, TN
  • Out of all the responses, only one person (a Dad in TN) said he supports vouchers. No other respondents said they wanted public assistance to pay for a private education. In fact…
    • Vouchers for private schools don’t fully pay for tuition, so it doesn’t realistically give much school choice while draining funding from public schools. ~Anonymous, TN
    • I don’t agree with the school choice and voucher programs being discussed. We need to invest in public education, not dismantle it by funneling money to other programs. ~Rebecca, CA
    • I don’t think public money should go to religious institutions, period. ~Jill, VT
  • These responses suggest that most parents don’t just want lots of options in their town/neighborhood; they want low/no-cost and accessible options that gives everyone in the community an equal, high-quality education – and a simple process for choosing and enrolling in school.

And when it came to the question of “How do you feel about school choice as it’s discussed in politics or media?”, one-third of respondents either didn’t answer or said they didn’t really have enough information to make a decision. (Parents: we gotta’ pay attention. The political decisions made today will impact our kids for their entire lives.) But for the 67% of folks who did respond, there was one thing that stood out: y’all don’t believe ’em.

  • Parents believe that the media is biased in its education reporting:
    • Most media is biased and not fair in their reporting of schools/educational option in general. They report too much negative and don’t acknowledge the positives often enough. ~Pam, CO
    • Nontraditional alternatives are not given the coverage they deserve. ~Elizabeth, TN
    • It tends to undercut the importance of the existence of public schools. As public schools are essential to building a just society, I find that troubling. Both how vouchers/charter schools are talked about in the media and unschooling rhetoric in the parenting blogs undercuts how important providing good schooling to everyone is. ~Shannon, MD
  • Parents believe that politicians are, uh, not telling the whole truth of what school choice really means:
    • The debate around public school is similar to that of veteran health care. People talk about choice making it sound good but really it’s undercutting an already underfunded public institution. ~Maggie, TN
    • I feel that its going to get worse. I feel we are going in the direction where only the wealthy will be able to send kids to good schools and the poor working class will not have any choices. ~Deborah, GA
    • I think the word “choice” implies “pick what’s best for your kid” when the reality for most families is “pick the least worst option you can afford” ~Tara, TN
  • Or, as one Mom succinctly put it: All politics and media make me want to barf right now. ~Lillie, VT

TheseCandidates

But the big question I really wanted to figure out was “Does having more choices lead to happier parents or a more satisfactory kindergarten preparation experience?” I asked participants to rate their school-searching stress levels from 1-5 (5 being the most stressed), then I used Pearson’s R to see if there was a correlation between stress and the number of choices they have or the number of things they’ve done to prepare for enrolling their child(ren) in school. Here’s what I found:

  • The average stress level for all participants was 2.43It makes sense that the average would be in the middle of the scale, so this is a good way to start out… Mathematically, anyway. Overall, I feel like that’s still an awful lot of stress!
  • Having more schools nearby doesn’t equal more stress. There was no correlation between the number of available choices and parents’ stress levels (r=-0.0926).
  • However! The more realistic options families had, the more stress they felt. There was a moderate correlation (r= +0.3946). This makes sense, of course – we don’t typically worry about the things that don’t impact us. But it does show that having options doesn’t mean that parents feel any better – and there’s further evidence of this in your comments:
    • “I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place.” ~Erin, FL
    • “There are limited choices in my area, but I am fine with that.” ~Kathleen, VT
    • “I wish my kids could simply go to the school for which we’re zoned, but public schools in San Francisco are a nightmare. It’s a lottery system, and there’s a chance my kids will be assigned to a school on the other side of the city” ~Rebecca, CA
    • I wish I didn’t feel like I had to choose between a diverse community school that makes kids sit too much and follows standards I don’t believe in, or a mostly upper-middle class white school with a curriculum and format that doesn’t make me worry about my child’s long-term love of learning and mental health. ~Jill, VT
  • I was not particularly surprised that the more things a parent has done to select a kindergarten, the more stress they felt – to a really significant degree (r= +0.6442). This is clear even if you don’t know all that Pearson’s r stuff. The average stress level of parents who haven’t taken action, either because they have plenty of time or they have already chosen a school, was 1.73/5. The average stress level of parents who have started the selection process was 3.29/5!
  • Also, parents who have a magnet school option are also feeling slightly more stress, with an average stress level of 2.9/5 (r= +0.3083). I suspect this may be because magnet school admission is done via lottery – and there’s nothing more stressful than waiting a long time to find out whether the odds were in your favor, as Rebecca said up above!

So, to summarize (aka TL;DR):

Parents DO want to have some choice over where their kids go to school. This makes a lot of sense – we all want to give our kids the best possible shot. But parents (those surveyed, anyway) overwhelmingly reject the idea that they should get the schools of their choice at the expense of others. They also don’t enjoy how complicated the process is or all the stress it causes. And who can blame them? The kindergarten application process should not be as hard as applying to college, and yet for many parents, it is just as confusing and anxiety-inducing.

The results of the survey (in my opinion) absolutely speak to the need for public schools to have public oversight: democratically elected school boards, strong Parent-Teacher organizations, opportunities for electeds to listen to parents, and resources that demystify the whole process for everyone. Public schools are meant to be a public good, and it is painfully obvious that the public does not feel that their needs are being heard by decision-makers.

So, what can be done? That’s another big question. Maybe you’d like to share your ideas in the comments! Or just share your opinions. What do you think of the questions asked? Are you surprised by anything? Did you learn anything new? Let’s talk!


*Charter schools are opened and managed by independent organizations (many of them for-profit corporations), but are subject to some oversight by Local Education Agencies – aka the government – and they cannot turn students away based on disability status.

**Vouchers/Education Savings Accounts pay parents a small lump sum (usually it’s just slightly less than the average per-pupil spending in the state) that they can put towards the tuition for a private school. These are often offered to parents of kids with disabilities – in exchange for them waiving their child’s rights under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.


BIG, HUUUUUGE thanks to everyone who took my survey last week! This was my first time doing my own survey research, and it was great to hear from parents from so many communities! Even if I didn’t quote you, your ideas and input made a difference. And if you’d like to see more surveys like this, let me know in the comments!

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