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Study shows school choice is more than just test scores

Posted: December 29, 2013 - 1:05am

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice recently released an eye-opening analysis of why and how parents choose private schools. The analysis by the national nonprofit organization is Georgia-based, undertaken by Georgia Public Policy Foundation senior fellows Jim Kelly and Dr. Benjamin Scafidi, and uses the results of a survey of Georgia parents of K–12 private school scholarship recipients.

The study, “More than Scores,” is available at www.edchoice.org. It addresses what parents focus on in choosing a school; what information schools should provide, and whether school choice – public or private – would provide a more “spontaneous education order.”

The authors of the study say they addressed these issues because frustrated parents, politicians and policy-makers are considering alternatives to public education; the nation faces a “wide range of social and cultural challenges that add great complexity and uncertainty to the K–12 education mission,” and school-choice programs including tax-credit scholarships and vouchers are leading to large numbers of parents transferring their children to private schools.

The survey of 754 parents of recipients of tax-credit scholarships from Georgia GOAL – the state’s largest student scholarship organization – found there are numerous reasons parents transfer their children from public schools to private schools and that parents rely on a wide variety of information in evaluating their options.

Surprisingly, contrary to what many believe, student performance on standardized tests is among the least important considerations for parents. Just 10.2 percent of the parents surveyed cited test scores in the top five reasons for their decision. More important were the school climate and classroom management, including “better student discipline” (50.9 percent), “better learning environment” (50.8 percent), “smaller class sizes” (48.9 percent), “improved student safety” (46.8 percent), and “more individual attention for my child” (39.3 percent).

Parents want information, too. Among the information that counts are the student-teacher ratio (84.2 percent), school accreditation (70.2 percent), curriculum and course descriptions (69.9 percent), college acceptance rate (61.3 percent) and the availability of religious instruction (56 percent). Just 21.5 percent of the parents listed “the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of the student population” as important.

“Contrary to the assertions of some school choice opponents, low-income parents, single parents, African-American parents, and parents with less than a college education are willing and able to be informed and active education consumers on behalf of their children,” the authors note.

Private schools operate in a competitive market and families must decide to enroll their child – and pay for this education. Consequently, these schools have an incentive to volunteer information to parents.

The authors argue that by providing parents with private or public funds to be used at the private schools of their choice, it is possible to create a “spontaneous education order” – one in which empowered parents would seek information about schools in their communities. To remain competitive, schools would need to publish or otherwise make available the information parents seek.

The authors propose a sea change for the education bureaucracy. They maintain it would be better if, “rather than implementing onerous ‘rules of organization’ that are used to perpetuate and micro-manage a government-run K–12 education monopoly, public officials would institute minimum ‘rules of just conduct,’ which would protect the spontaneous education order from antidemocratic practices or tangible threats to child safety.”

The adoption of tax-credit scholarship or voucher programs is the first step toward building a pro-parent and pro-family spontaneous education order, according to Kelly and Scafidi. They suggest:

State and local officials and private schools take into consideration why parents choose to transfer their children from public schools to private schools.

Parents should tell private schools what information they consider important in deciding on a school.

Nonprofit education foundations, policy-makers, parents, school-choice advocates, researchers and associations of private independent schools should work together on online platforms to facilitate information-sharing and agree on minimum “rules of just conduct” that promote a democratic process and child safety in private schools.

The analysis clearly highlights the low priority parents give to standardized test scores when selecting private schools. Its authors urge officials to resist the temptation to impose national or state standards and testing on private schools or demand that private schools publish “report cards” emphasizing test score performance.

In the marketplace of ideas and in the competition for students (consumers), informed parents will ensure that best practices rise to the top.

(Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.)

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