Anyone familiar with debates about school choice proposals knows both sides agree parents need accurate information to be effective choosers. What is not agreed upon is whether it is realistic to expect parents to be well-informed.
Truth be told, an abundance of evidence in various academic disciplines suggests that for most people the cost of gathering information often outweighs the perceived benefits.
Skeptics of school choice highlight these general findings as reasons to doubt the possibility that consumers can drive an effective market for quality education–especially because many voucher programs target low-income families, who researchers often find have less access to information than higher-income families.
School choice critics fear parents will choose bad schools for lack of good information, or will select schools based on criteria that don’t act as a catalyst for enhanced learning–such as choosing a school based on racial or religious concerns rather than academic quality. Some studies have shown these fears are not without merit.
Other studies, however, give school choice advocates good reasons to be optimistic.
A study by Mark Schneider, Paul Teske, Christine Roch, and Melissa Marshall conducted in the late 1990s concludes it is not necessary for all parents to possess quality information about their community’s schools in order for everyone to reap the benefits of a competitive market. So long as a critical mass of “marginal consumers” makes quality choices, they argue, everyone can benefit from information-driven forces.
While this notion potentially lessens the burden of proof for choice advocates, it does not remove it. To date it has not been widely demonstrated that parents gather and store more information when they are given more schooling options.
While plenty of studies report parents say they gather and use quality information, such self-reports are not considered reliable measures of reality.
Studies that actually measure parental information about their children’s schools in a choice environment are rare. A study completed this year by Patrick Wolf and Brian Kisida (one of the authors of this column) at the University of Arkansas sheds new light on the question of how informed school choosers are compared to non-choosers.
Using data from the Washington Scholarship Fund, which provided partial tuition scholarships for District of Columbia families at or below 270 percent of the federal poverty line in the late 1990s, the researchers examined two specific questions of fact that were asked of both choice and non-choice parents via survey. Because everyone in the study had applied for a voucher, which was then awarded by a random lottery, the only thing that differed between choosers and non-choosers was the actual offer of a voucher.
The parents were asked to estimate the number of children in their child’s class and in their child’s school. The researchers expected that being offered a scholarship would lead parents to become better informed about their children’s schools, and that parents’ information levels would rise the longer they were in the program.
When the data were compared to actual school records, the researchers found statistically significant confirmation of both hypotheses. In the case of parents’ ability to exhibit knowledge about their child’s school, the choice parents were more accurate, and their level of accuracy increased over time.
While the findings are especially important given the nature of the data–randomized experiments are considered the “gold standard” in social science research–they have important limitations.
As the researchers note, while increasing choice apparently leads to higher levels of accurate information, “questions remain about what level of information is sufficient for a consumer-driven school marketplace to operate effectively.”
While proof that choice leads parents to learn more about their child’s schools is encouraging news, evidence of students’ educational outcomes is the ultimate test of the policy’s effectiveness.
Brian Kisida ([email protected]) is a research associate for the School Choice Demonstration Project, and Brent E. Riffel ([email protected]) is the deputy director of the Office for Education Policy, both at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform.
For more information …
“Shopping for Schools: In the Land of the Blind, the One Eyed Parent May be Enough” (abstract), by Paul Teske et al., American Journal of Political Science, July 1998, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0092-5853(199807)42%3a3%3c769%3asfsitl%3e2.0.co%3b2-0#abstract
“School Governance and Information: Does Choice Lead to Better-Informed Parents?” by Patrick J. Wolf and Brian Kisida, University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, http://www.uark.edu/ua/der/EWPA/