With the nomination of Betsy DeVos as the next U.S. Secretary of Education, plenty of people are anticipating a surge of support for every flavor of school choice from the Trump administration. Those who advocate for school choice policies believe that they empower parents to take the reins of their children’s educational experience and result in better quality schools through marketplace dynamics. Those who resist them worry that allowing families to choose schools will undermine public school systems and have unintended consequences such as increased segregation.
New Orleans, where we work, offers a useful case study of school choice in practice. Students are not assigned to a default school based on their home address. Instead, families in the city are free to choose which schools their children attend (so long as they apply on time and can get a seat). They can also apply for vouchers to attend private schools (budget permitting). Since adopting this approach after Hurricane Katrina, student test scores and graduation rates have improved significantly (though there are some caveats).
Those who are frustrated with persistently struggling school systems nationally often look at New Orleans and say, “Yes! Let’s do that.” It seems simple. Give parents the ability to choose schools, and make sure there are enough schools for everybody. Bam, done.
But New Orleans’ experience with school choice tells a much more complex story. The truth is, making school choice work takes a lot of work. If you think you’ll see better results simply by setting parents free, get ready to be disappointed. Building a healthy educational ecosystem doesn’t just happen; it requires deliberate effort and a variety of support structures.
Here are five key supports that we believe are essential, based on our work with families in New Orleans:
1) Universal enrollment systems that are truly universal
School choice without a universal enrollment system turns something that is usually simple (registering your child for school) into a giant headache for parents. Schools may have different application timelines and processes, and some will inevitably communicate about their requirements and seat availability better than others. To its great credit, New Orleans has invested in an independent enrollment organization and robust technology to manage its school choice process. Even so, challenges remain. One of the biggest complaints we hear from families is that not all schools are in the OneApp system (private schools and selective enrollment schools, for instance), which creates confusion, and parents still struggle to understand what they’re supposed to do, when.
2) Family feedback on school quality
Imagine using a shopping site like Amazon.com without users’ star ratings or reviews. That’s what it’s like for families who are evaluating their school options in New Orleans. They have various sources of information for student body demographics, extracurricular offerings, and academic performance (more on that momentarily), but nothing to tell them how other families and students have experienced the school. Do they like it? Are they treated well? Do their kids feel engaged? Do teachers respond to calls and emails? Who knows? This is a major missing piece in New Orleans’ school choice infrastructure. An annual, independently administered family survey should be a high priority for any city considering a similar approach.
3) Smooth coordination between schools
School choice environments enable families to move from school to school much more fluidly than they would in a traditional zone system. But things start to break down if schools struggle to communicate with one another or coordinate on basic matters like student transfers. It can take weeks, for instance, for some schools to send along records when a student moves to a new school. In the meantime, students lose out on important services and teachers in the receiving school have no idea about the transferring student’s academic history. Families end up covering these gaps – and they walk away frustrated.
4) Clear information on school performance
The idea of a market assumes that customers can discern levels of quality. If you expect families to make informed decisions about schools (and ideally to preference higher-performing schools), you need to give them clear, useful information about how schools are doing. In many states, families have to click through menu and after menu just to find a school’s official performance report, then wade through pages of poorly explained data points that may not even include the information they really care about.
5) Trustworthy quality control
Every educational marketplace needs a consumer protection agency. At a bare minimum, this means ensuring that a central authority is paying attention to issues of equity (in school enrollment and special education policies, for instance), investigating and responding to complaints from families, and enforcing quality standards (for example, by prohibiting extremely low-performing schools from operating indefinitely). School choice gives families a degree of freedom, but it also means they’re on their own. And nothing frustrates families more than finding out most of their “choices” are mediocre schools they don’t want.
It’s too early to predict exactly what Ms. DeVos will do if she becomes Secretary of Education, but expanding school choice is clearly her passion. We hope she keeps these supports in mind. Choice can be empowering to families, but only if they get the information and help they need to navigate their choices effectively.