Choice Inspires Consumer Guides to Good Schools

Published December 1, 1997

Educational choice opponents frequently contend that parents would be unable to make good choices for their children because they lack information on school performance, and thus might choose for superficial reasons. But as legislation has given parents in some states a wider choice of schools for their children, information providers have stepped in to fill the new demand for information.

Consumer guides to schools are increasingly available to assist price- and quality-conscious buyers in making informed choices for their children, just as more familiar consumer guides provide information about Internet-ready computers, washing machines, and sport utility vehicles.

“There are very few parents who would select a doctor, lawyer, or church for their family simply because the facility was located nearby,” opens the Sutherland Institute’s guide to schools in Utah. “Parents should be just as careful about selecting the schools that their children will attend.” In Utah, parents may enroll their children in any public school in the state as long as they can provide transportation.

The Institute’s “Utah Schools at a Glance” provides basic facts about the quality of public and private schools, including religious schools. Among the data provided are enrollment figures, curriculum, cost per student, average class size, graduation rate, dropout rate, standardized test scores, ACT scores, and the percentage of seniors with four or more years of math and science.

While such statistical information provides insight into schools, the guide encourages parents to talk to school administrators, teachers, and currently enrolled students to get to know how their local schools operate. The guide also provides general information on choosing between public, private, and home schooling options, together with a list of contact organizations, private schools, and tutoring schools.

Choice accompanied by hard data is an “excellent” idea, comments educator E.D. Hirsch, who adds, “That’s like nutritional labeling on foods.”

In Colorado–which, like Utah, permits public school choice statewide–the Parent Information Center in Golden compiles data on nearly all of the state’s 176 public school districts. The Center produces a Report Card that grades schools based on the percentage of students achieving at or above grade level. Schools receive an “A” when at least two-thirds of the students perform at or above grade level, while in “F” schools only about one-third of the students perform that well. (See “Parent Information Center Provides Report Card on Colorado Schools,” School Reform News, April 1997.)

A somewhat different guide is available to parents in Connecticut, which permits public school choice within some districts. The Municipal Guide, published by the Hartford-based Connecticut Policy and Economic Council, provides information on local economies, spending, taxes, and schools in all of the state’s 169 cities and towns.

The Connecticut guide groups municipalities into six regions, allowing comparisons to be made among neighboring communities as well as against the statewide average. In addition to data on population, income, property taxes, and home prices, the guide also provides statistics on school enrollments, average teacher salaries, education spending, and the percentage of fourth-grade students meeting state goals in reading, writing, and mathematics.

As choice expands, the supply of guides is growing. Disturbed by the lack of readily accessible information about school performance in his state, last year William S. Rice published his own “School Scorecard” for the 364 public schools in and around St. Louis, Missouri. The Seattle Times published a guide to almost 100 high schools in Washington state last fall, and guides of various kinds also are available in Massachusetts, California, and New York City.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].