When “School Choice” Leads Families to Trade One Bad School for Another

Chicago study documents that fewer than 5 percent of students who transfer move to a high performing school

In a perfect world, school choice is supposed work by allowing families to leave bad schools and enroll their children in better ones. The failing schools either close, or improve to attract students again.

But for such a system to operate smoothly, parents need information to figure out which schools are good and which are bad.

In Chicago, researchers had an unusual opportunity to study, over several years, how publicizing information about school quality influenced where families enrolled their children.  And they found that many families did pull their children out of failing schools. But they usually ended up in ones that were just as bad, or only slightly better. Astonishingly, more than 25 percent of the transfer students moved to another school that was also on the city’s probation list of failing schools.

“The reason is geography,” said Peter M. Rich, one of the study’s coauthors and a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at New York University. “The low-performing schools are clustered in high-poverty neighborhoods in the South and West Side of Chicago. They have fewer nearby options to choose from.”

Given the choice of commuting a long way to a high-performing school on the other side of town and transferring to a school in the neighborhood, low-income parents tend to choose the latter. Time-consuming travel is impractical for students with working parents. And no one wants to send elementary school children on public transportation by themselves through crime-ridden neighborhoods. But the choices closer to home are often little, if at all, better than poor students’ current schools.

While certain aspects of public transportation infrastructure, geographic segregation and neighborhood safety are unique to Chicago, Rich believes the lessons from his study, “Choice, Information, Constrained Options: School Transfers in a Stratified Education System,” published online in the American Sociological Review on Sept. 9, 2015, and slated to be printed in its October 2015 journal, are widely applicable.

“The overall lesson is that school choice policies that don’t provide transportation or, perhaps, housing subsidies for families to move to higher-income neighborhoods aren’t going to equalize educational opportunities,” Rich concluded.

Rich found that the low-performing schools were overwhelmingly filled with poor students, 93 percent of whom qualified for the free or reduced-price lunch program. The few non-poor students at these schools were more likely to transfer, and even more likely to leave Chicago or the public school system altogether. Overall, 84 percent of all students attending a school on the probation list were black, even though black students make up only 54 percent of the total student population in Chicago. Another 15 percent of students in probation schools were Latino, while almost none were Asian or white.

Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative advocacy group that promotes school choice, praised the study’s methodology, and said he wasn’t surprised that public school choice had failed to produce benefits in Chicago. “In an area that has struggled a long time, there aren’t many good public school choices,” Butcher said. “Just by telling families they can leave, if there are not other things happening to improve the supply, families will have few options.”

For school choice to work, Butcher said, policymakers should give families vouchers to attend private schools, and allow more charter schools to open. He also argues that low-performing schools should be shut down.

In Chicago, families had been untethered from their local neighborhoods and free to attend any public school in the city since the 1980s, stemming from a desegregation court order. But in 1996, the city began identifying and publicizing which schools had low reading scores, and it put them on a probation list.

Rich and his co-author, NYU sociology professor Jennifer Jennings, calculated that families were 19 percent more likely to leave a low-performing “probation” school after the city began that information campaign. That translates to about 15 percent of the student body leaving a school that was put on probation. Some families moved out of Chicago or left the public school system.

But among those who transferred to another Chicago public school, fewer than 5 percent moved to a school that ranked in the top quarter of schools in the city. Only 22 percent transferred to a school in the top half. Meanwhile, 74 percent of the transfers ended up at a school in the bottom half.

This NYU study largely conforms with earlier research, finding that public school choice doesn’t suddenly improve schools for low-income students. Often families are unaware of their options and tend to stay at their designated local school.

A number of researchers have found that test scores improve in school districts after school choice is implemented. For proponents, that’s a sign school choice is fostering a healthy competition and propelling all schools to improve.

Indeed, test scores did improve in Chicago during the period studied by the sociologists. But, as Rich points out, testing policies were simultaneously changing. Teachers were newly accountable for their student test scores and were using more classroom time to prepare for tests. Both third grade and eighth grade students had to hit minimum test scores to avoid repeating a school year.

It can be hard to disentangle how much of the improved test scores can be credited to school choice and competition and how much to the introduction of high stakes testing.

Because of that, and the possibility that all schools — including the weakest ones — might be improving over the long-term, this study isn’t a sweeping condemnation of school choice. But it does show that having the freedom to choose and information on school quality aren’t enough. The educational marketplace doesn’t work when poor residents live far away from the neighborhoods with better schools. It’s the old saw:  location, location, location.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is the founding editor and writer of Education By The Numbers, The Hechinger Report's blog about education data.