Giving Compass' Take:

• The Center on Reinventing Public Education shares insights into improving equity in school choice to ensure that those who need choice most have access. 

• How can funders take action on the advice provided here? What do underserved communities in your area need most? 

• Learn why school choice doesn't necessarily mean more opportunity

School choice was once a privilege enjoyed by families who could buy their way into certain neighborhoods or pay for private school tuition. Today, across 47 states and the District of Columbia, families can enroll their children in a public school outside their neighborhood. In about 200 school districts across the country, at least one in ten students in the public school system attend charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. In other cities, magnet schools and selective admission schools offer additional options. Cities where all or many schools are available for families to opt into—whether district options, charter schools, or both—have come to be known as high-choice cities.

School choice is intended to give families without resources to buy a home in the “right neighborhood” the opportunity to enroll their children in desirable schools nonetheless. But this theory ignores practical realities. Like other decisions we face in our lives, the ability to make a choice doesn’t mean we have a good one to make. Are parents aware of their options? Do they have the time and resources to navigate the process to secure their choice? Are there any schools even worth choosing? Without affirmative answers to these questions, school choice is unlikely to have the effects its most ardent supporters hope for.

Realizing these various constraints on choosing, education leaders and philanthropists across the country have invested in policies and programs designed to make it easier for families to exercise choice, including transparent reporting of performance data, streamlined application and enrollment systems, and free transportation. But it remains to be seen whether these systems position families to succeed with school choice, or if instead they simply provide the illusion of a level playing field.

We build upon a three-year partnership with D.C. School Reform Now (DCSRN) to understand effective strategies for enabling all families to find success with school choice. Since 2011 DCSRN has sponsored “parent advocates” who help families apply to high-quality schools of choice. After observing advocates working with families over two enrollment cycles, we learned that:

  • A network of community-connected partners help advocates reach and maintain connections with parents. Community-connected partners, such as schools and social service organizations, help families and advocates build relationships and stay connected during time-sensitive enrollment deadlines.
  • Supporting families to navigate school choice takes patience and persistence but it’s worth the effort. Maintaining relationships over the course of school enrollment cycles isn’t easy—families move, change their phone numbers, and face extenuating circumstances that can make them hard to reach. But persistent follow-up pays off in helping families enroll in a school of choice.
  • Flexible, one-on-one support can address the routine and unexpected barriers families confront in choosing a school. Advocates can customize the services they offer families because they have established relationships and are able to scale their services based on family need. In turn, families can get the help they need, whether that involves just a few reminders or more robust support.
  • Advocates can’t solve challenges stemming from too few desirable schools—and those challenges loom large for DCSRN families. In D.C., like in many cities, families run up against the fact that there are too few openings at the most desirable schools, too few quality options close to home, and a lack of instructional models and extracurricular programming that meet family need. Though advocates work with families to locate good options, they can’t change which schools are available or guarantee that families can secure a desirable placement.
  • One-on-one support can improve equity, but sustaining and scaling such supports remains an unresolved question. To date, DCSRN’s parent advocates only reach a small share of the families who might benefit from their support. Expanding service is difficult given the costs associated with providing one-on-one support and the lack of reliable sources of funding.

DCSRN’s work with families reveals the continued challenges many families confront, even in a city like D.C. which has invested heavily in improving equity in school choice. Their efforts offer suggestive lessons on how cities can improve underserved families’ success.