Amid the fact and fiction surrounding public school choice is the suspicion that many parents who send their children to another school do so for nonacademic reasons, or, shall we say, the wrong reasons. While this is undoubtedly true in some cases, a recent study of parental school choice in the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colorado, refutes findings that parents choose programs based more on their social composition or convenience than their educational content. Instead, what emerged was a portrait of parents as sophisticated consumers of education who generally offered knowledgeable reasons for sending their children to alternative schools.
Moreover, parents' self-reports indicate that their motivation to select a different school for their child is more positive than negative in nature—that is, their decisions are based more on a proactive search for different teaching and learning environments than on negative experiences with neighborhood schools (although some parents cited dissatisfaction with neighborhood schools as a secondary reason). Such a finding should at least give some pause to the critics of school choice who contend that families do not—or cannot—make good decisions about schools.
Background to the Study
Fort Collins is a predominantly white, relatively affluent small city of 100,000 in Northern Colorado near Colorado State University. A few years ago, the local school board decided to create a number of experimental alternative schools. One of the stated reasons—"to provide a level of educational choice that meets the increasingly diverse expectations of the community"—recognized that many local parents (1) already had a good idea of what they wanted from their public schools, and (2) were demanding more choice, variety, and participation in the educational programs their children pursue. One result was the creation of three elementary-level alternative schools open to any child in the district, given space.
- The Core Knowledge School, the largest alternative school, uses the Cultural Literacy curriculum developed by E. D. Hirsch. This back-to-basics school also stresses character education and discipline.
- The Lab School is at the opposite end of the educational continuum: it offers a nontraditional school setting that emphasizes a small pupil-teacher ratio and a child-centered, developmental curriculum.
- The Harris Bilingual Immersion School offers strong bilingual language skills and cross-cultural knowledge to a balanced mix of predominantly Spanish-speaking and predominantly English-speaking elementary students.
After the schools had been operating for approximately two years, the school board asked a local university-school collaborative, the Research and Development Center for the Advancement of Student Learning, to begin to assess how they were doing. During the first phase of the study, we conducted an intensive battery of telephone interviews with a 20 percent random sample of families with children enrolled in the schools. Our study aimed to find out, essentially, who uses the schools, why, and the parents' level of satisfaction with their children's educational experiences.
Choosing for the Right Reasons
In all three cases, the vast majority of parents chose to enroll their children in the alternative schools for reasons that generally matched the educational philosophies and practices espoused by the schools. Basically, they had a very good grasp of school differences and were choosing schools for all the right reasons.
At the Core Knowledge School, the most popular and fastest growing of the Poudre School District's alternative schools, the parents sent a clear message that the curriculum offered there is one that they believe embodies higher academic standards and more accountability for student learning. They also appreciate that the school encourages parental involvement and maintains a disciplined environment, where their children learn values such as respect for others and responsibility for their actions.
At the Lab School, parents are primarily interested in small classes, individualized teaching and learning, and more parental involvement. The Harris Bilingual Immersion School, on the other hand, attracts parents who value bilingual skills and cultural diversity in the educational environment.
In a notable number of interviews, parents expressed their awareness of educational issues on an even more refined level. Some parents, for example, switched their child's school enrollment because they preferred phonics to the whole language approach to learning to read or felt that alternative schools provided more integrated curriculums than neighborhood schools. Smaller school size was another fairly consistent concern of parents.
Next Question: Right for Whom?
Obviously, this is a commendable situation: in response to community demands, the school board provides a wider variety of educational options. Parents then select among schools in an effort to find the best school for their children and end up choosing schools for solidly educational reasons.
But there is a problem here: in the Poudre School District, as elsewhere, the parents who choose alternative schools tend to be parents who are attuned to educational issues and already actively involved in their children's education. With the exception of the Harris Bilingual Immersion School (which is designed to be a fairly balanced mix of minority and white families), choosing parents in Fort Collins tend to be less diverse in their ethnic make-up than the community as a whole. Perhaps not too surprisingly, they also appear to be more highly educated and/or have higher incomes than nonchoosing parents. For example, in the sample from the Lab School, 60 percent of families have an annual income of more than $50,000, and 75 percent of mothers in those families are college graduates or have postgraduate degrees. In the sample from the Core Knowledge School, the corresponding figures are 62 percent and 57 percent; at the Harris Bilingual Immersion School, they are 22 percent and 48 percent.
Is this entirely healthy for public education? Just as obviously, the answer is no. Although the parents who choose alternative schools for their children are making their decisions for the right reasons, the fact remains that the reasons are often right for a limited segment of the school population only. Teachers in the neighborhood schools voiced their concern that the alternative schools skim off the most involved parents and the most motivated students, leaving the problem children behind. The tendency of two of the local alternative schools to become more "exclusive" schools also breeds suspicion about darker parental motives: "It's a socioeconomic thing," a neighborhood teacher said. "The alternative school parents don't want their kids to go to school with kids from the trailer park."
Unfortunately, whatever the reason, much of the recent research on school choice does lead to the conclusion that increasing educational choice is likely to increase separation of students by race, social class, and cultural background.1
Such findings underscore the argument, long made by knowledgeable architects of well-crafted public school alternatives, that the structural details of choice programs really matter. Districts committed to making school choice work in an equitable and fair manner need to consider such factors as school location, dissemination of information to parents, and provision of transportation.
In the Poudre School District, for example, parents with children enrolled in alternative schools must provide transportation themselves. This fact, in itself, is likely to discourage participation by some low-income families. The vast majority of parents (85 percent in the Core Knowledge School, for example) also said they found out about alternative schools through friends and neighbors, another trend that probably favors those already attuned to the workings of the education system.
Our evaluation study raised yet another concern: can the cultures of public alternative schools, by their very nature, be exclusive? If schools are created to serve specialized segments of the population, could the resultant school cultures feel comfortable to some, but uncomfortable to others? Could such dynamics, in and of themselves, constitute a barrier to equal access? The answer appears to be a qualified yes. Although the local alternative schools are open-option, some parents perceive that the Core Knowledge School is noninclusive.
During interviews with the small number of parents who took their children out of the alternative school, we heard comments praising the school for striving for academic excellence but also criticisms for a too-rigid uniformity. In effect, these parents said that the district had created a private school run with public funds. As one parent said,
The curriculum is great, but some of the parents there have gotten out of control—they aren't willing to help the kids who don't fit their mold. If the kids are not perfect little quiet students, they are not welcome. They are deciding, 'What kind of kids do we want here?' They are not an accepting group.
Another parent agreed: "They promise you that the curriculum is good for everybody, but the slow kids get left behind. And they don't want to deal with special needs kids."
Designed to Last?
In addition to these findings, the Poudre School District's alternative school study also suggests the need for a system of professional development and monitoring to ensure that alternative schools really do offer something different in their teaching and learning environments—not just old practices renamed and placed in a different building. Careful attention needs to be paid to how roles are defined in nontraditional learning environments, as well as the kind of school organization needed to carry out stated intentions.
This issue came up in the Lab School, which experienced a high rate of student attrition (about 25 percent) during one academic year. Parents who pulled their children out of the school (as well as some parents whose children remained) complained that the school's original vision had disintegrated under a variety of pressures, causing it to revert back to a much more traditional model. These parents contended that teachers began discouraging parental involvement, thereby violating one of the school's most basic tenets—and one of the school board's primary reasons for creating alternative schools. "The school changed, and what I was promised wasn't there any more," said one parent.
Real, lasting, and equitable school change is obviously not simple or cheap to come by. But school choice is here to stay—at least in the Poudre School District, where, despite growing pains, the majority of parents with children enrolled in alternative schools reported that they were satisfied, or very satisfied, with the experience. Even parents who had a negative experience in an alternative school often went out of their way to tell interviewers that they continued to be strong supporters of choice. It is equally clear that the school district will continue to grapple with such issues as equity, access, school governance, and reliable measures of school effectiveness.
B. Fuller and R. F. Elmore, eds., (1996), Who Chooses? Who Loses? Culture, Institutions, and the Unequal Effects of School Choice, (New York: Teachers College Press).
Sally Bomotti is Research Associate, Research and Development Center for the Advancement of Student Learning, 1400 Remington, Fort Collins, CO 80525.