David Pickens is executive director of DCSRN.
Few cities have done more to make public school choice accessible than the District. So why are so many families struggling to use this system to get their children into good schools?
It turns out that creating a level playing field for school choice is about more than just providing school guides or websites with search and matching functions, or text messages to nudge parents to complete applications. It’s about making a connection and getting real about the challenges families confront when they are asked to make public school choices.
School choice is no longer a niche phenomenon in the District. More than three-quarters of the city’s students are enrolled in a school outside their neighborhood. Parents don’t have to navigate an array of applications to take advantage of choice, thanks to the common application and lottery adopted in 2013, and information on school quality is readily available through online guides and other tools.
But, despite the city’s effort to make choice more accessible, daunting challenges remain. According to a recent report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, our research partner, low-income families and families of color are much less likely to enroll in the city’s top-rated schools.
Since 2011, DCSRN, formerly known as DC School Reform Now, has attempted to level the playing field in school choice through the High Quality Schools Campaign. We connect families living in some of the District’s most underserved and isolated neighborhoods with parent advocates, who offer one-on-one, personalized help in the school choice process. Our work with families has an impact: More than 80 percent of students enroll in a quality public school.
Over the years, we have seen how some of our city’s families remain closed off from the opportunities that choice proponents say are designed to benefit them. We commonly encounter parents who are puzzled by the procedural requirements that school choice demands, such as admission criteria to some of the city’s high schools or the residency paperwork that must be hand-delivered to complete enrollment. Language, literacy and special-education challenges abound and require hands-on support to be addressed, such as translation services or personalized school recommendations.
While many observers pay lip service to the challenges that families confront in choosing a school, most have vastly underestimated what will be required to address them and ensure that the most disadvantaged students are not left behind. Parents need connections. They need to feel that someone is in their corner. They sometimes need a strong hand to reach out, fill in the information gaps, help them to set priorities for choosing schools and support them to build confidence in their own decisions on behalf of their children.
D.C. families are not alone in these challenges. Cities around the country fail to provide basic information about schools or coordinate enrollment and transportation services so that families can more easily take advantage of choice. While policymakers at the federal, state and local levels have shown a commitment to expanding choice, far too little has been done to support families to take advantage of their new options.
How can cities provide the support that families truly need to navigate choice? First, states, districts and community-based organizations need to double down on their support for outreach efforts around school choice. While parent guides and other online tools offer a seemingly attractive and cheap solution to the information challenges that families confront, such tools require a baseline understanding and knowledge that not all families possess. School- and community-based resources are more likely to reach families where they are and understand the key challenges particular communities confront. Second, supporters of research should invest in building the evidence base around which strategies are most effective at resolving disadvantaged families’ challenges with school choice.
While school choice offers many families an escape valve from struggling schools, supporting parents to exercise choice will require much more than a list of schools. If advocates for school choice are serious about ensuring that all families can benefit from the expansion of new schooling options, they need to do much more to make sure the most vulnerable students and families can navigate an increasingly complex system of public schools, although this may require people to get outside their comfort zone and meet families where they are.
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