Two years ago, when my husband and I were on the hunt for a daycare for our daughter, we found ourselves—as first-time parents often do—totally overwhelmed. It was hard to know where (or when) to start, what to look for, and who to talk to.
Eventually we identified a place we liked. The director had decades of experience. The families and teachers were a diverse, multi-lingual bunch. It was walkable from our home. We took a tour, filled out an application, and sent in a $50 fee to secure a spot on what we were told was a short waitlist.
Then we never heard back. No amount of emails or voicemails ever elicited a response.
I was surprised at the time. Didn’t they have an obligation, after all, to communicate with the families who wanted to send their kids there? (Not to mention cut them checks.) But it turns out that for parents, not hearing back from an educational institution is far more the norm than an anomaly.
A new study by a team affiliated with Columbia and the University of Florida found just that. The research team sent more than 6,000 inquiry emails from fictitious parents to district and charter schools in 40 large school systems across 29 states and the District of Columbia, all of which offered intra-district school choice. The emails inquired about enrollment procedures and applications. Overall, schools responded just 53 percent of the time, across district and charter schools alike.
In other words—roughly half of those parents never heard back at all.
That wasn’t all. The study randomly assigned some of the emails to signal particular characteristics about the student in question—for example, that they had special needs, a history of behavioral challenges, or low or high academic performance. Schools were less likely to respond to inquiries about students who were perceived as more expensive or harder to educate. Emails that mentioned poor behavior were the least likely of all to receive a response.
The authors make the case, rightly, that these differential response rates prove that schools use subtle tactics to fill their seats with students who are perceived as “easier” to educate. Even when school choice policies prohibit explicit admissions criteria, schools are able to cherry-pick their students, the authors say, by responding to (and recruiting) the families they want. In two states that reimburse districts for the higher costs of educating students with special needs, the differences in response rates disappeared, suggesting that cost may well be a driving factor.
But the incredibly low overall response rates also reinforce something we see all the time at EdNavigator: that school application processes, even for public schools, are simply not designed for parents. It should be every parent’s right to get a seat for their child in a school that suits them, even if they can’t always get their first choice. But so many parents are struggling to get even the basic information they need to apply, let alone make an informed choice. For parents with other challenges layered on top of that—limited English, little experience with American schools, children with special learning or behavioral needs that require particular kinds of supports—the process is that much more prohibitive.
If asked, would these school systems proudly tout that they reply to “about half” the parents they hear from? It’s hard to imagine. We often hear the line that parents need to be more engaged with their children’s schooling: respond to outreach from school, be in contact with teachers, support learning at home. That’s fair. But school systems need to do their part, too. That starts with making school choice processes more accessible, and welcoming families into the school community—regardless of who they are or their children’s needs. Responding to parents’ emails should be a baseline expectation, not the end goal.