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Barriers to Families Choosing Public Schools — And Using “Equity Enablers” to Help Them Do Better

K-12 Education

Barriers to Families Choosing Public Schools — And Using “Equity Enablers” to Help Them Do Better

Bruno V. Manno

Sr. Adviser, K-12 Education Program

The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has released a fascinating report entitled Stepping Up. It’s chock-full of provocative information on how 18 cities* are implementing and delivering on the promise of public school choice. 

There’s good and bad news:

  • In 36% of the cities, schools made statistically significant proficiency rate gains in both reading and math.
  • In a majority of the cities, low-scoring schools typically moved out of that status over the course of three or four consecutive years.
  • But access to educational opportunities is still not equitable, and most cities have not yet sufficiently addressed the needs of low-income families. 

The analysis includes a 2017 survey of eight1 of the 18 cities that are “high choice” environments, offering a range of school options to families that include charter schools, district magnet schools, charter-district partnership schools and other forms of inter-district choice. 

Families were queried about the choice application process in these cities and seven potential barriers they might encounter in choosing a school. The following graphic from the report overviews the findings, illustrated by three income levels.

Two items top the list of barriers: finding a school with strong academics and finding a school that is a good fit with a child’s needs. Closely related is a third barrier: finding sufficient information about schools to make a good choice. Administrative issues involving paperwork and too many applications to complete are at the bottom of the list. 

One income-related point is striking. Across all barriers, those with a household income of less than $35,000 report more difficulty on all these issues than those with higher incomes. This raises the issue of how equitable access is to school choice and ultimately educational opportunity.

The report identifies three issues on which city leaders with new or growing public school choice programs need to do additional thinking and development, working with local stakeholders, if school choice is to advance more equitable access.

  • Information and support: How to best apprise and sustain parents with accurate, understandable, and timely school information. 
  • Matching: How to ensure that younger children most in need are matched with quality schools that are more easily accessible to where they live. 
  • Responsiveness: How to safeguard that a school system is more responsive to local community leaders.   

Promising approaches to resolving these challenges were evident in some cities, but not all. To sustain and expand public school choice, more cities must adopt best practices. Here are 10 examples of what I call “equity enablers.”

  1. Consolidated school guides with comprehensive information on all types of schools, including shared definitions of school quality across different types of schools, making allowances for special school themes or emphases.
  2. Timely, understandable information on important elements of school quality that go beyond achievement data, e.g., school culture, safety, family services, special education and English language learner services, etc. 
  3. Transportation that allows easy access to better schools.
  4. Unified enrollment systems so that parents only need to complete one application to apply to multiple schools.
  5. Different communications and outreach engagement strategies for families through the choice process as “one size fits all” approaches don’t work with today’s diverse family structures.
  6. Enlisting a variety of community organizations in these outreach and communications efforts.
  7. Dealing with facility challenges through co-location of different types of schools.
  8. Placing new schools in high needs neighborhoods.
  9. Using “high touch” support during school improvement and closure processes. 
  10. Building partnerships with trusted community leaders to advance all these activities. 

These actions will foster better and more equitable access to good schools. Implementing these “equity enablers” will not be a one-time effort, but become the foundation for a continuous improvement process that will reduce the barriers to equitable school choice for all families.


*Atlanta, Boston, Camden, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Memphis, New Orleans, New York City, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Tulsa and Washington, D.C. CRPE analyzes publicly available state and federal data on five outcome measures like test scores and graduation rates and 23 system reform indicators, including human capital, program and school model diversity, and community engagement and acceptance of choice.

1Cleveland, Denver, Detroit (added for survey only), Indianapolis, Oakland, Memphis, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

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