Get Schooled

Your source to discuss and learn about education in Georgia and the nation and share opinions and news with Maureen Downey

When given school choice, how do parents choose? New Orleans offers insights.

I've been reading about recovery school districts, which Gov. Nathan Deal hopes to introduce to Georgia via constitutional amendment. In my research, I came across a recent study out of New Orleans where the recovery school district – an idea born prior to Katrina but put into action on a large scale post hurricane – has become a national model and one often cited by Deal as his inspiration.

Douglas N. Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, and Matthew F. Larsen, a post-doctoral fellow at Tulane, recently released the policy brief, “What Schools Do Families Want (And Why)? New Orleans Families and Their School Choices Before and After Katrina.”

Because New Orleans converted most of its public schools to charters, tossed attendance zones and offered choice, the city provides an opportunity to study how parents choose.

Parents there were already used to choice; 53 percent of students in New Orleans were already attending schools they were not zoned for before Katrina. After the Katrina, the percentage increased to 86 percent.

The researchers looked at how much parents were influenced in their decisions by academics, as reflected by the School Performance Score, a grade awarded to schools by the state of Louisiana based on test scores

Among the findings:

•Surveys of parents tend to over-state the role of academic factors in school choices.

•While very-low-income families in New Orleans have greater access to schools with high average test scores, they are less likely to choose schools with high test scores. This is partly because their incomes and practical considerations prevent them from doing so.

•Being close to home, having siblings in the same school, and including extended school days are all more important to very-low-income families than other families. Also, compared with other New Orleans families in the public school system, very-low-income families have weaker preferences for School Performance Score and stronger preferences in high school for band and football.

•Overall, the lowest-income families are attending schools with average test scores that are higher than before the reforms, but these families weigh academic outcomes somewhat less than higher-income families.

•At the same time, while very-low-income families are less likely than moderate-income families to choose schools for their academic outcomes, very-low-income families are not necessarily worse off academically. First, there is some evidence that average academic quality has improved and become more equally distributed across the city. Second, the reforms allow schools to develop specialized programs that attract like-minded families and teachers and may help build an engaging school culture — and higher achievement. Third, our evidence suggests that some parents have strong preferences for academics and these parents could influence the market in a way that improves academics for all students.

•With more choice, average driving distance to school attended increased by 1.8 miles, and 1 in 4 students attend a school more than five miles away from home

•Distance from home to school, academic performance of schools, and extracurricular activities predict school choices at all grade levels. Also, even after controlling for other school differences, families typically prefer schools that have “legacy” names that were used pre-Katrina.

•For families of children going to elementary schools, practical considerations such as distance and availability of extended school days and after-care seem especially important. For example, an elementary school that is right across the street and has free after-care and a C grade would typically be preferred to a school that is two miles away with no after-care and a higher B grade

•For families with children going to high schools, extracurricular activities such as band and football seem especially important. For example, a high school with a legacy status, football and band, and a C grade would typically be preferred to one without legacy status, no football or band, and a B.

Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.