Opponents of education opportunity programs often suggest that families would not be looking to leave the public school system if states simply invested more time, money, or resources in them so public schools could improve their academics. This argument suggests that academic quality is the only reason families seek alternatives. This thinking by opponents, however, is misplaced as it does not understand the full story.
HOW FAMILIES CHOOSE SCHOOLS
Where to send a child to school is a big decision. For too many families, especially those with a low-income, that decision is made for them by the government, based on where they live. For those families with the additional financial resources, however, they have other options. Often, the first decision a wealthy family makes about where to send their child to school is when they purchase their home. On average, real estate is more expensive in communities with higher quality public schools. This locks many families out. But thankfully for those families who happen to live in states with private school choice laws (like Illinois) and in communities with public charter schools, the amount of money in a family’s bank account or the social capital a family commands does not have to dictate the kinds of education opportunities available to children.
So what happens when families can choose the school that works best for their child? It turns out, academics is but one of many different factors in the decision families make about where to send their child to school.
In New Orleans, attendance zones for the public schools were eliminated after Hurricane Katrina and virtually all of the city’s traditional public schools were transitioned into public charter schools. Coupled with Louisiana’s school voucher program, families in New Orleans have some of the best and most extensive schooling options from which to choose.
According to research completed by the Education Research Alliance of New Orleans, low-income families were less-likely to choose a school based on their high test scores alone and more likely to choose a school based on its proximity to their home, availability of extended school days, whether their siblings attend the school, as well as sports and band offerings.1 Families were searching for a school that worked the best for their children, their lifestyles, and their support systems.
For private schools, similar trends hold. EdChoice surveyed scholarship families in Georgia about their decision to send their child(ren) to school on a scholarship and found that test scores (as a proxy for academic quality) was one of the bottom reasons families chose private schools. Instead, families were more interested in things like better student discipline, smaller class sizes, improved student safety, and more individualized attention.2 Again, families looked at the full picture of what a school offered for their families and children.
Empower Illinois’ own survey data suggests that while academic quality is of interest to families seeking a scholarship to attend a private school under the Invest in Kids Tax Credit Scholarship Program, other motivations are also at play.
A survey of the families participating in the program found, in addition to academic quality, the top 5 reasons a family chose to apply for scholarship to a private school, included wanting a school with:
- religious/faith based education
- character/values instruction
- smaller class sizes
- a safer school
While it is safe to say that families do value the academic quality of a school, academics alone do not drive family decisions. Moreover, lower-income families have complex motivations for seeking an alternative to their residentially assigned public school that often goes beyond academic quality. These families are seeking the right fit school for their children based on many indicators of quality. This data and understanding busts the myth that academic quality and test scores are the only reason families opt to seek alternative schooling options.