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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. Many families don't know whether they have a choice of school.

Where you live generally determines where your kids go to school. Try to enroll them elsewhere and you could end up in jail. Wealthier families, by contrast, often have options. If they are dissatisfied, they have a choice of schools. Money can buy school “choice” in the sense that parents with the means can pack up and move to a home near a school they prefer.

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. 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., in partnership with, 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., in partnership with, 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.

Not all schools have rigid attendance areas.

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

Districts can set open enrollment policies to give parents a choice of schools within a district. School choice systems can take many forms, and they can be very confusing if poorly implemented. If your district is considering changes in the school assignment process it makes sense to find examples to work from. For example, Oakland Unified asks all parents to participate in a choice process that includes both district and charter school options.

Giving parents a choice

Some schools are designed to serve students from throughout a school district. Magnet schools, for example, are set up to attract enrollment from throughout a district 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. The first magnet schools were established in high-poverty neighborhoods in the 1960s. After rapid initial growth, such schools settled to less than 3% of California enrollment by 2011. (Charter schools also have district-wide attendance boundaries - more on those in Lesson 5.5.)

A small number of public "exam schools" in California (nine, by one estimate) have an application-based selective admission process. These schools also define their "attendance area" broadly, accepting students throughout their sponsoring district. A prominent example is San Francisco's Lowell High School.

Choice can contribute to segregation

When parents have a choice of schools, where do they send their children? The answer is individual and complicated. Parents may prefer one school over another for all kinds of reasons, from ambition to proximity to a feeling of "fit." 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, it turns out that school choice systems tend to make schools somewhat more segregated rather than less.

The biggest real-world test of this question 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."

Transfers are rare, but possible

In California, state law also makes some formal provisions for how students can transfer to a regular public school outside of their local district. 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.

Some education reform initiatives rest on the premise that families should be allowed a a choice of school to best meets their needs. Districts providing a system-wide career pathway approach to high school are one example. Nationally, a cadre of large urban school districts are involved in developing "Portfolio Strategies" to broaden school choices for low income families.

When it comes to school choice, the other side of the proverbial coin (there always seems to be an “other” side) is the argument that schools define communities. When children from a neighborhood all attend the same schools and families identify with those schools, it can build connections that bring more support into schools and create a powerful safety net for children. Lesson 5.7 will look at a movement working to do just that.

But first, 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


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-

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
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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