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Lesson 5.2

School Choice:
Should You Have a Choice of Schools?

What if you could choose any school you wanted for your kids?

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When it comes to where kids go to school, zip code is usually destiny, especially for poor families without the economic means to move.

Where you live generally determines where your kids go to school. Most schools have an "attendance area" that defines where your kids can go. Try to enroll them elsewhere and you could end up in jail.

Residential property values can be very sensitive to differences in school reputation. This fact is not lost on real estate professionals, who are attuned to the local rules for determining school attendance areas. Changes in those rules can have a direct impact on housing values, especially at the high end. High-quality schools and high-value housing go together like bees and honey. According to research by the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the effect of school quality on real estate is "non-linear"; when a school is perceived as excellent, the value of homes in its attendance area rise quite significantly.

GreatSchools.org, in partnership with Zillow.com, may be able to show you the attendance areas associated with schools of interest to you. The numbers on this map reflect the GreatSchools rating of each school. Click to visit the site. GreatSchools.org, in partnership with Zillow.com, may be able to show you the attendance areas associated with schools of interest to you. The numbers on this map reflect the GreatSchools rating of each school. Click to visit the site.

Wealthy families, almost by definition, enjoy a choice of schools for their children. If they are dissatisfied, they can pack up and move to a home near a school they prefer. Money can buy choice.

Not all schools have rigid attendance areas.

Yes, charter schools also have district-wide attendance boundaries – more on those in Lesson 5.5

School boards set the rules that govern where kids are assigned to go to school. Although most schools have rigid attendance boundaries based on the street address where kids live, school districts are not required to take this approach; for example, they can establish a process to give parents influence over where their kids are assigned. These approaches are often known as school choice systems.

The earliest school choice systems were exceptions. For example, in the 1960s some school districts began creating magnet schools in high-poverty neighborhoods. These schools were meant to attract enrollment by offering something different and attractive — most commonly an unusually rigorous curriculum, or a curriculum oriented toward a particular interest such as art or science. After rapid initial growth, such schools settled to less than 3% of California enrollment by 2011.

The state also includes a small number of selective public "exam schools" (nine, by one estimate). These schools define their "attendance area" broadly, accepting applicants from throughout their sponsoring district based on grades and test scores. San Francisco's Lowell High School is a prominent example. Other public schools in California with a selective admission process include the Los Angeles School of the Arts and Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco, both of which have portfolio and audition elements.

Giving more parents a choice

School choice systems have grown far beyond these early exceptions. For example, charter schools (discussed in Lesson 5.5) do not have attendance boundaries other than the school district itself. Any student residing within the district may enroll.

Many school districts have also eliminated or softened attendance boundaries to offer more choice. School choice systems can take many forms, and there is an unavoidable element of luck involved. Some schools tend to be more popular than others, and school districts need to allocate school "seats" in ways that are seen as legitimate. Many school districts that offer school choices ask parents to enroll their children using a ranked-choice lottery process.

These school choice systems tend to become complex for legitimate reasons. For example, the process often includes preferences to help families enroll siblings at the same school, if they prefer it. Or to give families a better chance of attending their nearest school.

School enrollment systems must include processes to handle changes and exceptions. For example, if a family moves or is evicted, where do the kids go to school? In school districts that include many non-traditional schools, such as public charter schools or private schools, enrollment processes can take on an extra level of complexity. Families might try their luck at enrolling their children in multiple school lotteries. The results can take time to shake out.

In order to reduce the complexity for everyone involved, some school districts create a single public school choice process involving both traditional and charter schools. For example, the school choice process in Oakland Unified takes this approach, combining the enrollment process for all local public schools including charter schools.

Transfers are rare, but possible

In California, state law allows students to transfer to a regular public school outside of their local district, if the districts agree about it. For example, in certain circumstances a parent's place of work may be used as a basis for a student to attend a school. The state education code specifies that working parents have a right to enroll their children in the district where their workplace is located under certain conditions, but under most circumstances both the sending and receiving district must agree to the transfer.

For a few years, California's Open Enrollment law provided students enrolled in any of the state's 1,000 lowest-scoring schools with the right to transfer to any higher-scoring school, if seats were available. Over twenty states have such open enrollment policies. California's open enrollment law is currently dormant for technical reasons: the law was written in a way that relied on the existence of the Academic Performance Index (API), a measure that has been eliminated.

Choice can contribute to segregation

When parents have a choice of schools for their children, how do they choose? In the early days of the school choice movement, many expected that parents would abandon low-scoring schools, flocking to better ones and in the process leading to more integration.

In practice, there is evidence that school choice systems may tend to make schools somewhat more segregated rather than less. Parents may prefer one school over another for all kinds of reasons, from ambition to proximity to a feeling of "fit." For example, if a school community builds a reputation for being welcoming to Latino families, it makes sense that Latino families might choose it. If a school has a teacher who can teach Japanese, it makes sense that families of Japanese descent would choose it.

The biggest real-world test of the connection between choice and segregation comes from New Orleans, which implemented a massive school choice program in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Writing for the Brown Center Chalkboard, Tulane University researcher Lindsay Bell Wexler summarizes the findings: "In general, research on both charter- and voucher-based school choice has found that these programs are more likely to lead to small increases in segregation than to improve integration. These results are not entirely surprising, given research on parents’ preferences showing that families tend to choose schools with students from similar backgrounds."

Is School Choice Bad?

Some argue that offering parents a choice of schools is the wrong goal, and not necessarily a good thing on its own. Ed100 writer Carol Kocivar explores this question in an online video debate about school choice.

"Often forgotten in the policy debates," argues Peter Cookson of the Learning Policy Institute, "are the fundamental questions of whether and how choice influences access to high-quality schools for all students, and whether, in our diverse democracy that requires common ground, choices promote or undermine integration."

In the next few lessons, we'll look at some of the other ways that students are placed into schools and into classrooms.

Updated June 2017
Updated December 2018

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School quality affects home prices in a "non-linear" way. What does this mean?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 14, 2018 at 10:34 am
The Learning Policy Institute:

"Evidence shows that simply providing choices does not automatically provide high-quality options that are accessible to all students or improve student learning."

The report describes the range of high-quality education options within the public sector and considerations for policymakers as they seek to expand those options. It also lists considerations for policymakers when looking at ways to support private school options that ensure good student outcomes, appropriate uses of fund, and democratic goals.

Read the Report:

Expanding High-Quality Educational Options for All Students: How States Can Create a System of Schools Worth Choosing

user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 19, 2017 at 2:53 pm

Commentary and research on school vouchers continue to pile up. Here are two:


More Findings About School Vouchers and Test Scores, and They are Still Negative


Evaluation of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program


"The findings indicate that students receiving and using scholarships had significantly lower
mathematics test scores a year after they applied to the OSP than did students who did not receive a scholarship.
Reading scores also were lower but not statistically significant for the overall sample...

user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder July 15, 2017 at 12:48 am
Vouchers were a key tool for segregating schools in the Jim Crow era. For a useful summary of what happened and how it ended, read Carol's blog post, and this brief from the Center for American Progress
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 1, 2017 at 12:42 pm
Do school choice policies Segregate schools? A study by the National Education Policy Center leans towards "Yes." It finds:

"While some choice school enrollments are genuinely integrated, the overall body of the re-
search literature documents an unsettling degree of segregation—particularly in charter
schools—by race and ethnicity, as well as by poverty, special needs and English-learner sta-
tus."

Read more here.

user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 8, 2017 at 9:48 pm
A study of open enrollment policies by state can be found from this article, which examines the impact on students from a change in transfer policies: Tear Down These Walls
user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 28, 2016 at 9:31 am
Evaluation of the School District of Choice Program
http://lao.ca.gov/Publications/Report/3331?utm_source=subscription&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=traditional
This report assesses the program and offers recommendations regarding reauthorization.
From the The Legislative Analyst's Office
user avatar
digalamedabg April 14, 2015 at 8:49 pm
At the school I work at we have many transfer students from lower income areas because the town demographic is older and the residents don't have school age children anymore. But, the district selects who they want to transfer in to the district so it is not just anyone. With decreased enrollment it can help to increase number with the addition of the transfers. They don't get top pick of classes because they are enrolled last and they are held to a much higher behavior /grade standard than residents.
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