Ep 6: Studying Families’ Access to Schools with Kristin Blagg

May 31, 2017

Our Director of State Research and Policy Analysis Drew Catt is back with a new EdChoice Chat. In this episode, Kristin Blagg, research associate in the Education Policy Program at the Urban Institute, joined him to discuss the recent report she co-authored with Matthew Chingos: Who Could Benefit from School Choice? Mapping Access to Public and Private Schools.

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Catt: Thanks for chatting with me Kristin.

Blagg: Thank you for having me.

Catt: What would you say inspired this research?

Blagg: With the new Republican administration, there was a renewed interest in the use of some sort of a national school choice plan. And previously, a lot of discussion on school choice has been on the local or state level, and we realized that nobody had ever looked at the landscape of choice from a national policy level. If you implemented some sort of national policy, what would be the effect in different cities and states. And so that was what we wanted to do, to just get a very broad estimate of what types of families would be affected and where.

Catt: That’s great. So how did you go about designing this study?

Blagg: Well, this is a study based on the locations of schools and the locations of families, so we used data from the American Community Survey on families with school-aged children—so children aged 5 to 17—assuming that families were going to be the unit on which this decision is made. And then, we used information on the location of both public and private schools from the Private School Survey as well as the Common Core of Data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Our goal was a pretty simple one. We’re not looking at any issues of capacity of schools. It’s, sort of, this assumption of if you were plopped somewhere in the U.S. and you were the only one making a choice under these policies, what types of options would you have depending on where you lived.

Catt: I personally have had quite a few reports using the United States Department of Education’s Private School Survey (PSS) respondent data, and I realized the PSS data only include private schools that actually respond to the federal survey in a given year. So how many of the estimated 30,800 private schools in 2011–12 were you able to include in your analysis?

Blagg: The Private School Survey has nearly 27,000 observations in it, and for this study, we only look at elementary schools. I don’t know the proportion of private elementary schools that we got off of that study. But the other thing that this looks at is the potential that if there were some sort of voucher program that was a national voucher program, what sort of take up you might see.

I would be unsure if a private school that didn’t respond to a survey might also not participate in a national voucher program. So it’s a weakness of our survey that we don’t have the entire universe of private schools, but I feel confident that we have a substantial number of them.

Catt: Or at least the ones that, as you said, would be potentially interested in participating in such a program.

Blagg: Exactly.

Catt: So what else did you find? Were there any surprises?

Blagg: I think, again, we’re trying to get a very broad sense of what the world looks like today, and so we don’t look at any of the impacts of putting out any of these programs. I think the arguments that people make about the impact of places, like charter schools and private school vouchers, do sort of come through. When you look at families in rural areas, there’s lots of lower access to things like charter schools and private schools. I was surprised actually by the real coverage of traditional public school.

And we were looking amongst elementary schools, and obviously the infrastructure for public schools has to be there, where every child in the U.S. should be near an elementary school.

But the other thing that surprised me: We looked at interdistrict choice and intradistrict choice, and those types of policies about going to other schools within your district and other schools outside of your district are really dependent on the size of the district.

In a place like Florida, for example, or Nevada has one or two very large school districts. The ability to go to a different school district isn’t really going to matter that much because you’re so far away from any other school outside your district, but the ability to go to another school within your school district might be a potential option. So we saw a lot of differentiation along those lines within states, just depending on the size of a district within states.

Catt: That’s very fascinating. So what do you think your findings could mean for the future of school choice?

Blagg: I think our findings show that this is a complex issue, and that there’s a lot of local tendencies, but if you tried to enact one choice policy across the US, you’d find a lot of people that were included, but also a lot of people that are left out. And again, all of the caveats of our study apply. We don’t look at issues of capacity, so saying that you’re near a school doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to get into that school if everyone else is applying. In addition, we don’t look at potential responses to a new policy, such as the opening of new schools.

Catt: So then, how could your research potentially be used to improve those K–12 policies?

Blagg: I think this does speak to the fact that a lot of decisions about school choice have been made on the state or local level and that systems have evolved around there. I don’t think we can say too much from this study about what should be done on the federal level in regards to school choice, but we do present some basic breakdowns of who would benefit and who wouldn’t in regards to families in poverty versus families not in poverty and then families in rural areas versus non-rural areas, or urban areas.

Catt: And as they say, information is power. So have you experienced any criticism of this report?

Blagg: No, I think that if you were to criticize it you’d definitely point to the fact that we just do a very broad sweep. We also look at “as the crow flies” distance, and we all know that 10 miles in a place like Washington, D.C. or New York City is very different than 10 miles in Wyoming or Iowa. So I think that those would be valid criticisms of our approach. We really are just trying to do a very broad sweep to look at a level that I don’t think has been done before in terms of granularity of understanding who are near different types of schools.

Catt: It’s potentially seminal research. Speaking of which. Is there any other research you think could be done following this report?

Blagg: As I mentioned we do “crow flies” distance, it would be great for someone to look at actual driving distance. That would probably be a better way to really hone in on these types of differences particularly between families in rural areas and urban areas.

The other thing is: We do this for elementary schools because we think proximity, particularly for young children, is very important. Looking at this for middle schools or high schools would probably be valuable. In addition, particularly for high schools, it might be useful to look at things like resources within high schools, not just how choice might enable the ability to access a special program, for example.

Catt: So I saw that you were recently part of a Bellwether panel looking at transportation and education. What were your experiences with that?

Blagg: I was part of a panel. Bellwether put out an absolutely terrific study of student transportation, looking at the different types of school buses, the efficiency of school buses, the different ways the different school districts really have designed their student transportation system. And I was on a terrific panel of practitioners from Boston public schools who manage transportation, from Florida and also from a rural charter schools in Idaho. So it was a great panel to be on.

Our study and our focus has been on the intersection of student transportation and school choice in five cities. We’ve done an introductory brief highlighting the differences in the transportation policies between these cities. The cities are Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, New York and here in Washington, D.C. So we’ve looked at the different ways every city has evolved to manage or navigate student transportation to different schools, whether it’s to you neighborhood school, a non-neighborhood school, a charter school and in some cases to private schools.

Catt: It’s a fascinating intersection of two very key policy areas in my opinion.

Blagg: Yeah! And what we find is very similar to our study looking nationally at the percentage of families that have different access to options. This has evolved at a very local level, so the policies are incredibly different in terms of who gets transportation to what schools, whether it’s by age or by the type of school attending, and even the mode of transportation, whether it’s a yellow school bus or a public transportation voucher of some kind. It’s really interesting to dig into the nitty gritty and I think surprising for a lot of people to see that the way they do it in the city that they grew up in is not the same everywhere else.

Catt: So Kristin, what would you say is next for you?

Blagg: Well, we’re continuing to work on the transportation and school choice, so we’ll be publishing some of that work toward the end of the year. In addition, I have a few different projects looking at location in higher ed as well. We did a paper looking at availability of different programs for different individuals in Virginia, for example. So I have a full slate of work ahead of me, and it’s always interesting to look at this idea of geographic variation in education policy.