Low-Income Parents Make Informed Education Decisions for Their Kids

Published April 1, 2007

In January, the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington released a report showing low-income parents prefer to choose their children’s schools rather than allow the government to do it for them.

According to Paul Teske, Jody Fitzpatrick, and Gabriel Kaplan, the authors of Opening Doors: How Low-Income Parents Search for the Right School, low- to moderate-income parents use the same methods to research educational options when choosing schools for their children as wealthier parents do.

After reviewing how moderate- and low-income parents gather information about their educational options and how informed and satisfied they feel with their choices, the study finds they are as satisfied with their decisions as their higher-income counterparts.

Informed Decisions

The authors studied how 800 families earning $50,000 or less in Denver, Milwaukee, and Washington, DC decided which school best fits their children’s needs. The findings dispute school choice opponents’ assumptions that low- and middle-income families are not equipped to make these important decisions. When given the choice, parents proactively seek information about their educational options, the study finds.

With few exceptions, low- to moderate-income parents say they believe they have the tools to make informed decisions, particularly in mature urban choice environments such as Milwaukee and Washington, DC.

“This study should give pause to those who argue that low-income parents won’t make good choices, either because they don’t care or they aren’t smart enough,” said Susan Mitchell, president of School Choice Wisconsin. “Its findings mirror what we see in Milwaukee–parents value the freedom to move their children from schools that don’t work to schools that do.”

The study indicates most parents take the decision seriously and research their options aggressively: 85 percent visit the schools, and 75 percent said they read printed information about schools, had their child visit the school, and talked with teachers and administrators.

Important Considerations

Parents reported feeling well-informed about their options, and generally chose from a small pool of realistic choices. Parents who are more engaged in information-gathering activities and who involve their children in the decision-making process reported greater satisfaction with their choices.

When initially approaching the decision, parents have a specific concept of what type of school would benefit their children, and they aim to match those needs as best they can, the authors observe.

Subjects earning less than $20,000 annually–who are commonly unemployed, single parents with relatively little education–reported slightly less information gathering and slightly lower levels of satisfaction. These parents are more likely to ask counselors for help when researching school options, the authors found.

Discussing options with friends and community leaders, other parents, and students is an important aspect of choosing a school, the authors discovered.

“These families visit schools, talk with administrators and teachers, talk with family and friends, other parents, and students, [and] review printed materials as they gather information,” Teske said. “After their children are in the schools of their choice, they report an equal or higher degree of satisfaction than other parents.”

Satisfied Parents

Parents surveyed said their top consideration was a school’s academic quality, followed by curriculum or thematic focus and a convenient location, respectively. Most respondents said they were “willing to have their children travel to the ‘right’ school.”

Opening Doors reveals low-income families are overwhelmingly satisfied with their choice of school. In Milwaukee, 94 percent of respondents said they are either “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with the school choices they have made. Nationwide, 88 percent of respondents said they felt that way about their schools.

Lori Drummer ([email protected]) is director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice.

For more information …

Opening Doors: How Low-Income Parents Search for the Right School, by Paul Teske, Jody Fitzpatrick, and Gabriel Kaplan, published in January 2007 by the University of Washington, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for document #20769.