Simulation: How a Parent Chooses a School for Their Child

The idea that impoverished parents shouldn’t be trusted to choose a good educational option for their children is one repeated often by school choice critics.

For instance, Michael Walker Jones of the Louisiana Association of Educators was quoted by the New Orleans Times-Picayune saying, “If I’m a parent in poverty, I have no clue because I’m trying to struggle and live day to day.”

A new Friedman Foundation study released today examines how a parent chooses a school for their child, and proves that idea isn’t just offensive to parents, it’s factually flawed. The study found 93 percent of parents from a large choice program, including those in poverty, are willing to take three or more time-consuming steps to obtain the information they need to make an informed decision about their child’s education.

Notably, low-income parents are most likely to rank graduation rates and college acceptance rates as the two most-important pieces of information they desire from private schools. Other important pieces for all parents include student-teacher ratios, a safe environment, and curriculum and course descriptions.

Considering the hot debate also going on around standardized test scores, this study surprisingly showed no parents listed them as the most important factor for choosing a school.

Based on what we know about parent priorities, check out this simulation of how a hypothetical parent might go about choosing a school.

How a parent chooses a school simulation image

As we can see, the school the parent chose did not have any available standardized test scores, yet he or she still determined it was the best fit. Many school choice opponents claim that test scores aren’t always a fair measure of the quality of education a school might offer. This is especially common in schools with large populations of kids who start off behind grade-level. School administrators and teachers in such a position worry test scores set the odds against their schools from the start. But, as the new study and our simulation show, test scores just aren’t that important to parents.

Looking with a wider lens, we see this parent actually wanted to stay in her ZIP Code yet did not choose her ZIP Code-assigned public school. Why? It didn’t outperform the other schools based on criteria she and many other parents find most relevant.

That’s not to say private schools don’t have room to improve. The parent in our simulation might have chosen a different private school had desired information been readily available. The More Than Scores study showed the failure of a private school to provide information would (79 percent) or might (20 percent) negatively impact a parent’s decision on whether to send his or her children there. So, if a school wants to attract more students, it would be in its leaders’ best interest to be transparent and accessible.

To read the full study by Benjamin Scafidi, Ph.D. and James P. Kelly, III, J.D., click here.