Engaging Families in Schooling Choices

by Dr. Lori Delale-O'Connor

While talk about school choice is seemingly ubiquitous, actual uptake is more limited—about 16 percent of students attend public schools of choice and roughly 13 percent attend non-public schools of choice, according to a recent report by the Center for Public Education. The term “school choice” includes a variety of options, such as inter- and intra-district transfer, charter schools, private schools, vouchers, virtual schools, and home schooling. Proponents of school choice suggest that it is not only critical to improve education, but that it actually acts to ameliorate inequities—particularly for marginalized, minoritized students, including Black and Brown students and students living below the poverty line. Studies on school choice, however, point to a far more complicated picture around its actual impact. Additionally, there is limited understanding of the ways families make sense of choice and the potential ways the micro-mechanisms that drive their actions may further marginalize already disadvantaged students in urban school systems.

The information families receive around choice—particularly the dissemination, content, quality, and use of that information—can serve as a critical contributor to disadvantage. Informed school choice requires that families have and understand information. This matters particularly in urban school districts, as they increasingly not only provide opportunities for school choice, but also require all families to participate in the choice process in some way. However, the connection between information and schooling choices, the ways parents engage, and the ways in which they are supported or not in the process is not well understood.

In my research, I explore the connections between information and choice, with a focus on the experiences of families of color living below the poverty line in two recent articles:

A few experimental studies point to the importance of formal information for choice. For instance, Hastings and Weinstein (2008) found that providing parents with simplified information on their schooling choices resulted in an increased likelihood that parents will choose academically higher achieving schools for their children.  Similarly, Rich and Jennings (2015) found that families responded to new information with transfers out of schools that were under probation, indicating a response to said information. However, this response was unequally distributed across families; economically poorer families were less likely to transfer either within or out of the district, and transfers connected to this information were more likely to be to other low-performing schools. Such studies point to the importance of information and associated outcomes to changing information, but overlook the processes underlying families’ processes.

My work begins to unpack some of the ways families make sense of and engage in choice, in particular around information. In one study, I explored an often-overlooked population of families: defaulters or “non-choosers”—that is those who attend their assigned neighborhood schools. Drawing from in-depth interview data, I found that families who arrived at the default school outcome did so in ways that followed patterns similar to those found in studies of choosers. Families’ inclination to choose, capacity for choice, and school preferences, as well external barriers, create a framework that helps to explain how some parents labeled as “non-choosers” or defaulters in other studies are actually actively engaging in the choice process. This work demonstrates how the choice process itself can lead those who perceive themselves as choosers to be classified by researchers as non-choosers or defaulters.


In a related article, I explored information engagement to better understand whether and how families are actually using the information they collect to make choices. I found that although families may have data around school choice, their approaches to actually using it fall along a spectrum from what I characterized as shallow to deep engagement. Their engagement ultimately influences the number, type, and quality of schools to which families apply.

Understanding the processes by which families make sense of choice provides insight into the barriers that some families face to active choosing and, as such, suggests potential micro- and macro-level interventions to meet the needs of a variety of potential types of participants in choice systems. As choice proliferates in urban districts and continues to put the least resourced families at increasing disadvantage, the implications of these studies can support policymakers and educators in understanding the mechanisms driving choice and support the least advantaged families. If school choice is to remain a central feature of the urban educational landscapes that serve low-income and minoritized students—and the current administration has indicated that there is potential for widespread expansion—such understanding is critical to supporting families in urban schools.