School choice proponents argue that choice creates equitable access to quality schools and results in the shuttering of schools that perform poorly since few families choose them. However, this is based on families having the right tools to make informed and timely decisions. In reality, school choice is often dizzyingly complex and, as CRPE researchers have learned and advocates have reported, families in many cities struggle to navigate the choice system. As one education reporter in Los Angeles wrote, choosing a school is not for the faint of heart.
School choice is nothing new for middle- and upper-income families—many rely on consultants to walk them through both public and private K–12 options. These services can cost well over $100 per hour and may include a full battery of testing, detailed descriptions of the relative strengths and shortcomings of each option, and hand-holding during the application process. But as school districts adopt public school choice policies, and as the number of charter schools continues to climb, the decision on where to send a child to school is no longer restricted to those who can afford private school or move elsewhere.
Yet as the education consultant industry grows in response to the increasing complications of school choice, the families most in need—those who can’t take time off work to tour schools, who require safe and affordable transportation to get their child to school, and who may not have the social connections to help them navigate complicated application and enrollment systems—are often left to fend for themselves. In some cities, including Philadelphia, Oakland, and New York City, parents have dozens of schools to choose from along with varying deadlines, special applications for specific schools, pre-tests and, in some cases, mandatory pre-application meetings. A few cities, including Denver, New Orleans, and Camden, New Jersey, have tried to alleviate this burden by combining district and charter school enrollment, but parents must still figure out which schools to list on the form and in what order. For families who cannot afford paid consultants, the high-stakes decisions and the mechanics of school choice can represent a disadvantage that perpetuates and even exacerbates the inequities the school choice policy aims to address. In cities like Detroit and Cleveland, where choice is ample but information is scarce, some schools compete for families not by improving services for students, but by improving their marketing strategies.
Parent Support to the Rescue?
But there is good news: Just as the private consulting industry responded to middle- and upper-income parents seeking support in choosing a school, the nonprofit sector is trying to meet this same need in lower-income communities. For example, many locales now have websites that provide parents with information about public school choices. Nonprofits, civic groups, and even some school districts provide academic performance information on both district and charter schools. Families in nearly every city can access GreatSchools.org, a nationally run website that merges publicly available data and parent reviews. In St. Louis and Memphis, parent advocates have created their own websites with locally driven and relevant information displayed as accessible descriptions of school types and application processes. These two cities, as well as others, also provide families with guidance on how to identify school quality and fit.
However, these passive supports only go so far. Many parents need higher-touch help weighing options and managing the logistics of enrollment. In at least six cities, local organizations now provide a much more hands-on approach to supporting parents as they consider school options. Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., have support providers that work one-on-one with parents, walking them through choices and the application process—similar to, although less intense than, consultants in the private school market. While these programs serve only a small portion of the need in these cities, they demonstrate how complicated the choice process has become.
Parent Supports: Types and Impact
These emerging one-on-one support programs are responding to local demands and needs of parents in varying degrees. Five types of these programs are outlined in the table below, categorized from high-touch to low-touch based on how much individualized attention families receive. For example, the EdNavigator program operating in New Orleans, and recently launched in Boston, provides high-touch help akin to what is available in the private consultant market. Other programs, like Families Empowered in Houston, go for scale by grouping parents, providing them with basic information, and encouraging them to share information and support with each other throughout the school choice process. Some of these programs find participants in low-income neighborhoods or through school choice fairs, while one taps them through employers. All the programs listed are provided at no cost to parents; their funding varies from full philanthropic support to employer subsidies. Click the links in the table to learn more about each program.
More Research Is Needed
These programs are a promising way to bolster the school choice process and ensure that it works as intended, especially for children with the highest needs and families with the fewest resources. But as these programs grow, their impact must be more clearly understood, given their expense and reliance on philanthropy. CRPE has begun this work, engaging in a research partnership with DC School Reform Now’s (DCSRN) High Quality Schools Campaign. But in-depth analysis of only one program and one model does not allow for a comparison between different levels and types of services (and their costs) and how they impact the school choice effect on school quality. With increasingly limited time and resources available to support choice in the current polarized climate, organizational leaders and researchers must strategize on opportunities for replication and scalability to reach more families in more cities. Examining the work and impact of these programs could help us better understand where the pain points are for families and how government and the nonprofit sector can provide effective and efficient support.
The intended goal of school choice is to be a vehicle that ensures equal access to quality schools for all families. Programs like DCSRN, Families Empowered, EdNavigator, and the others described below are providing a critical service to ensure that families experience this benefit. Now, education leaders in the policy, advocacy, and funding communities have an opportunity to partner with and support these organizations to better understand what works to realize the goal of school choice.
|TYPE OF SERVICE||ORGANIZATION||RECENT COVERAGE|
One-on-One Case Management
|EdNavigator (New Orleans, Boston)
Provides one-on-one support as a benefit to employees of companies that contract with EdNavigator.
|• Parents at Work: Has EdNavigator Fixed School Engagement by Making It a Job Benefit?|
|High Quality Schools Campaign (Washington, D.C)
Offers many services, including virtual school tours and one-on-one coaching.
|• For parents of rising kindergartners, school choice can add options—and stress|
Targeted Information and Group School Choice Workshops
|Kids First Chicago (Chicago)
Kids First Chicago runs targeted workshops throughout the city during the enrollment period for families seeking help choosing and applying to a public school, and provides a web-based school guide.
|• How Some Chicagoans Are Unlocking the 'School Choice' Puzzle|
|Choice4LA (Los Angeles)
Partners with local community organizations to provide customized information based on specific student needs. The organization tracks and shares school data.
|• Nonprofit that favors school choice offers help to Los Angeles Unified parents|
School Information with Limited Personal Support
|Families Empowered (Houston)
A “free educational consulting service for the masses” conducting broad advocacy campaigns for families around school choice and quality, and providing school choice fairs and a summer call center.
|• Houston nonprofit helps empower parents shopping for schools|