The annual anxiety-inducing lottery for the District’s public and charter schools can be a headache for parents. But for public policy researchers, it’s proving to be a data gold mine, providing information on what parents value most in schools and what factors influence their decisions about where to send their children.
The collected data can give direction to District education leaders about how to respond to those desires, and the findings could have implications for other school systems, said Steven Glazerman, co-author of “How Do DC Parents Rank Schools, and What Does It Mean For Policy?” The policy was paper released last month by Mathematica Policy Research.
“Decisions are currently made without necessarily knowing or having any way to predict what parents want,” Glazerman said. “Right now, you don’t really have a good way of predicting consumer demand for a school. With data like this you can say, okay, let’s run this policy through this simulation and see how it would affect enrollment at neighboring schools and what would it be at this new school.”
In the study, funded by the Walton Family Foundation, Glazerman and co-author Dallas Dotter analyzed school-choice preferences submitted in 2014 by more than 22,000 applicants for the District’s 200-plus traditional and charter public schools. The researchers then took the data and ran it through various models to see how different policies might affect school enrollment.
On the whole, they found that parents of D.C. Public Schools students want their children to attend high-performing schools that are close to home and are racially diverse. That’s not a huge surprise. But what interested the study’s authors was looking at how school preferences varied based on race, income and the grade to which the student was applying, and how those preferences might change if different options were available.
One of the attributes examined was academic performance, which is measured in D.C. schools by proficiency rate (the percentage of students scoring above a certain level on the District’s standardized tests) or accountability ratings. The study looked at how far D.C. families would be willing to send their child if choosing between the best- and worst-rated public or charter schools. The typical family, the study found, would send their middle school student seven miles farther to attend a school with the highest possible rating.
The study also found that parents prefer schools that have a high percentage of students who are of the same race or ethnicity as their child. But that’s only the case if their child would be in the smallest minority group in the school. If a child would not be in the smallest minority group, the issue is less important to parents, according to the researchers.
African American students in the District’s elementary schools are typically either a majority or large majority population. Hispanic and white students are typically minority populations in their schools. The study found that parents of white students applying to elementary schools had a strong preference for schools where their child would be in a small majority. This was less the case for parents of Hispanic students and not a factor for parents of African American students.
By middle school, parents of whites and African American students both exhibited a strong preference to have their children in a school where their racial group was sizably represented. For middle school students, the study found that the current lottery system leads to less segregation by race than would a neighborhood school system, in which schools would serve only students who live nearby.
For Glazerman, the study is a starting point for aiding districts in responding to parents’ needs and for shaping the direction of education options.
“We have this process that we are using to assign parents to schools, but it’s also a process for learning what parents value when they choose a school,” he said. “To make better decisions about how we allocate resources, we need to be using those data wisely. I see this study as a way to use those data to find out better what parents want, how they trade off attributes of schools and then how that information can be used to predict consequences of different policy choices.”