The Best School Choice: The More Parents Know, the Better

african american mom and daughter hold hands while walking
african american mom and daughter hold hands while walking

My role as an unapologetic advocate for public education in the most affluent predominately African-American county in America often turns a trip to the park into a lesson on why large public education systems struggle, and why successful parents may be asking the wrong questions before making choices for their children.

Recently, as I often do, I picked my two kids up from school and drove directly to the neighborhood park. Not too long after arriving, I noticed another father at the playground who'd just arrived with his two kids as well. He told me that his kids attended a private school nearby. His response was not unusual at all; in fact most of the parents I'd met at that park replied that they'd "opted out" of public schools without full knowledge of all the public school options.

The impact of the growing numbers of parents "opting out" in Prince George's County, where the medium household income ($73,000) exceeds the national average by $23,000, is a school system with nearly two-thirds of the students eligible for free and reduced lunch (FARM), a measure of poverty. The benefit of middle-income parents on all public school students is clear. These parents are more experienced advocates for their children and more knowledgeable about out-of-school educational opportunities that benefit all other students and parents. But when these parents opt out of public schools in predominately middle income communities, the result is an overrepresentation of lower-income parents and students, creating a cycle that discourages other middle-income parents from "opting in" to public schools.

But what those parents themselves too often fail to understand is that the choice to send their children to private schools may not always be the best one. Too often, African-American students do not excel in predominately white private schools these parents believe will give their children an advantage over their peers. In her December 2013 article for The Atlantic, "When Minority Students Attend Elite Private Schools," Judith Ohikuare wrote that "well-resourced institutions can fall short at nurturing minority students emotionally and intellectually."

My curiosity pushed me to ask this father why he chose a private school over a public school. His response was typical; he said he'd read about the Prince George's County school system being ranked near the bottom in Maryland in reading and math. As we discussed his choice further he revealed that, though he'd never visited the neighborhood public school, he had researched the school's standardized test scores. He discovered that only 65 percent of students at the school were reading on grade level. I was actually surprised to hear he had researched his local school; most parents I've met choose private schools solely based on word of mouth.

When I inquired about the father's own background, I learned that both he and his wife had advanced degrees and that both his kids attended seemingly high quality pre-kindergarten programs. The father also touted how engaged he and his wife were, taking their kids to museums on weekends or reading to them before bed each night. The more I learned about how well he was preparing his children, the clearer it was that this father, like too many other middle-class African Americans, had based his decision to choose private education over public education on a bad interpretation of public information.

By now, we were in deep conversation about the differences between his kids' private education and my kids' public one. I began rattling off data I knew about the consistently high performance in public schools by students from homes with highly educated parents, students from homes with highly engaged parents, and students who attend high quality pre-kindergarten programs. A study by the National Institutes of Health, for example, reported that children of highly educated and engaged parents have healthy self-perceptions of academic achievement and healthy attitudes about learning. Additionally, the Center for Public Education reports that children who attend a quality pre-kindergarten - of the kind that both he and I had found for our children -- are more likely to be reading on grade level by 3rd grade, less likely to repeat a grade, and more like to graduate high school in four years than students who did not attend a quality pre-kindergarten.

When he asked how well kids like his do in public schools, I told him that the data showing only "65 percent of students reading on grade level" would almost certainly not apply to his kids. Rather, the data show that kids of highly educated parents who attended a quality pre-kindergarten performed at the highest level in any system, including our system. In their study of the benefits of quality pre-kindergarten, the Center for Public Education found children enrolled in state pre- kindergarten posted vocabulary scores that were 31 percent higher and math gains that were 44 percent higher than children who did not attend pre- kindergarten. Additionally, the Pew Economic Mobility Project and many other researchers have found that the gap in academic achievement between students with highly educated parents and those with poorly educated parents is huge and growing. On vocabulary tests, for example, young kids with well-educated parents on average ranked in the 73rd percentile, while kids with low-educated parents ranked in the 27th percentile, and those gaps remain right through school.

We Americans hold tight to our freedoms and education is no different. The reality is that having options in education, or "school choice" as it's commonly referred to, is seen as a right by middle-income parents and a luxury by lower-income parents. Public schools should ensure there are public options like Montessori, language immersion, career academies, charter schools, and talented and gifted programs to meet the unique needs of their students. Public school systems also need to make information about each of the schools readily available in order to help parents make the most informed decision for their child.

Knowing the right questions to ask when choosing a school, whether it's a seemingly underperforming public school or perceived high quality private school, begins with the question of "how do kids like mine do at this school?" Choosing a school district based on how students of the same race as your child would perform, without factoring in parents' income and engagement with their children, can be misleading. And choosing a district based solely on how many high-income families attend can be just as misleading. For example, research by the education think tank Education Trust shows that Black and Latino students are increasingly performing poorly in high-income communities. There is also no evidence that students of color and low-income students are making more progress than their peers in schools that get high ratings under state accountability systems. For example, though minorities and low-income students perform well below the state average in Florida, only 30 percent of African American students and 20 percent of low-income students attend [grade] D or F schools as rated by state accountability measures.

Unfortunately, the available data do not make it easy to find the right answers even when the right questions are asked. For example, before the much-maligned No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law passed, the U.S. didn't even mandate that education data be disaggregated by race and income. But there is still more to do. For parents wrestling over whether to choose public or private schooling, school systems should further disaggregate data to track income within a race (e.g. high-income Blacks/Latinos) in order to increase the amount of data relevant to middle-income parents. Education Trust believes more effective state-level accountability and rating systems will answer the question of whether school ratings reflect the performance of all groups of students.

After about an hour of one of the most insightful discussions on school choice I've ever had, I revealed to this father that I was a member of the School Board. He laughed as if he was embarrassed. I quickly reassured him that our discussion was nothing more than my own research into understanding the decision-making process of private school parents like him. As public schools seek to become the first choice for more middle-class families, discussions like the one I had with this father need to happen between policy makers and parents more and more often.

Every student should be in an environment that gives them the best chance at success and school systems should be increasing public options for all students. We should also make sound, detailed evidence easily available to all parents. And parents should ask the right questions and learn how to use that data to make the best decisions for their children. American education will not improve unless expectations for parents grow at the same rate of expectations for teachers and schools. It starts with being informed about what's best for your child, and for your community.