Expanded Choice Increases Parents' Demand for School-Quality Information
Cambridge, Mass. — A common criticism of school choice is that parents don’t know enough about their local schools to take full advantage of it. But concerns based on how informed parents are in areas where choice is limited may not tell us much about how informed they would be if they were given more options. In the latest research article from Education Next,
Michael Lovenheim of Cornell University and Patrick Walsh of St. Michael’s College report results from the first study to assess how changes in the local choice environment impact parents’ demand for information about school quality, finding that the expansion of choice incentivizes parents to learn more about the educational options available to their children.
Lovenheim and Walsh analyzed over 100 million individual searches conducted from January 2010 through October 2013 on the nation’s largest school-quality website, GreatSchools.org, which provides information on school enrollment, demographics, and performance on standardized tests, as well as community reviews. The raw search data were linked to data on public school-transfer options generated by the No Child Left Behind Act and growth in the number of charter schools. The researchers focused on changes over time in search activity within each “search unit,” defined as a geographic area that potentially constitutes a school-choice zone for residents, relative to changes in the unit’s choice environment.
Among the key findings:
Eligibility to transfer schools under NCLB increased demand for information. For each 10-percentage-point increase in the number of schools in a given search area eligible for transfers, the number of GreatSchools.org searches grew by 7.2 percent.
NCLB waivers reduced search frequency. After a state obtained an NCLB waiver and school transfer options were largely eliminated, school-quality searches declined by 4 percent for each 10-percentage-point increase in the pre-waiver choice percentage. Thus, waivers reduced the effect of NCLB choice by more than half.
Charter school openings increase information-seeking by parents. Adding a charter school to an area is associated with a 5.3 percent increase in school-quality searches, providing suggestive evidence that charter school entry induces parents to obtain school-quality information and that the effect of choice on demand for information is not limited to NCLB.
“The availability of school-quality information alone is not sufficient to lead parents to become better informed about school options,” Lovenheim and Walsh conclude. “They must also have an incentive to seek and use this information.” When given access to choices, more parents arm themselves with available information.
About the Authors: Michael F. Lovenheim is an associate professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University. Patrick Walsh is an associate professor of economics at St. Michael’s College.
About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit educationnext.org.