Parents who received the information sheets increased their participation in the choice program by 23 percent relative to those who did not get the sheets. The sheets also increased the likelihood that parents would bid for choice schools with higher average test scores.
Research on school choice suggests that parental choices have relatively large effects on outcomes, and that lower-income families attach less importance to academic quality. The question is whether these results reflect the true preferences of low-income parents or whether their relatively higher costs of acquiring information about school performance distort their choices.
After several years of running a school choice program, officials of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District (CMS) in North Carolina became concerned that children admitted to their parents' first choice alternative school often scored lower on subsequent academic achievement tests. The District allowed Justine Hastings, Richard Van Weelden, and Jeffrey Weinstein to conduct a field experiment to test whether simplified information on academic performance, and on the odds of admission to a particular school, would change parental behavior. The results of this experiment are reported in Preferences, Information, and Parental Choice Behavior in Public School Choice (NBER Working Paper No. 12995).
In the 2002-3 school year the District had begun its school choice program after a court order allowed it to cease the busing for racial integration that had been in effect for three decades. By 2005-6, each student was assigned a "home school" and was eligible to enter lotteries for admission in up to three other "choice" schools that varied with student grade and location. The District maintained a Family Application Center to help parents with the choice process, and each family received a 100-page choice book. It included instructions for applying and descriptions of each of the almost 200 schools in the district. The descriptions did not include any objective measures of average school test score performance, suspension rates, or racial composition.
In consultation with the District, the authors designed simple information sheets to send to parents in randomly selected school-zones. Parents received either test score information or test score information along with information on the odds of admission for all of the choice schools in their zone. Results were tabulated separately for parents with children in failing schools. They had already been provided with a three-page printout of state competency test scores for every school in the District as required under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
The researchers found that the simplified information sheets had no effect on the choices of parents who had already received information on school performance under NCLB requirements. They did have a relatively large effect on those parents who had not been receiving information on academic achievement. Parents who received the information sheets increased their participation in the choice program by 23 percent relative to those who did not get the sheets. The sheets also increased the likelihood that parents would bid for choice schools with higher average test scores. These results suggest that high information and decision costs may keep low-income families from acting on their preferences for academic excellence, and that school districts can help families benefit fully from school choice by taking simple steps to reduce those costs.
-- Linda Gorman