Daniela Barriga and Kristie Rowley, Department of Sociology
Parents constantly make decisions in regard to their children’s education, whether it be decisions about enrolling their children in the local public school or private school or even where to live based on school zoning areas. Alternative school options such as charter and magnet schools are becoming popular options for parents who are looking to send their children to a different school that is not in their assigned geographical boundary. How parents make these decisions are not always understood, especially when it comes to understanding parents who face economic and social disadvantages. Even though school choice policies have been implemented to create more educational opportunities for low-SES families, research shows that advantaged families are more likely to take part in school choice options. Disadvantaged families are disproportionately assigned to failing schools and often do not participate in school choice options that would allow them to send their children better schools. Furthermore, when low-income parents are asked about their decision making factors, they claim to choose schools based on academic quality (Roda and Wells 2013). A disconnect arises: why are low-SES parents saying they value academic quality, yet actively decide to send their children to low-performing school?
Researchers have attempted to explore this disconnect using survey methods. We find that survey research shows low-SES parent’s decisions do not necessarily align with what they say. To address the problem of parent disconnect, we sought out an ideal context to evaluate it. We use data from a large qualitative school choice study which examines the school choice decisions of 90 low-SES families. Within the study, over 30 low-SES families are actively deciding to send their children to low-performing schools. We examine what kind of decisions parents make in regards to their children’s education and how parents justify and talk about their decisions to send children to failing schools. We find that parents filter their actions of school choice by using different sets of priorities that include social networks, status based arguments and needs-based resources. Our study helps address what current literature does not answer: how the constraints parents face shape the way they make decisions and talk about schools.
In order to investigate the disconnect between what parents say and do, we ask questions on how parents choose low-performing schools and attempt to look beyond the constraint hypothesis. We seek to understand what generates the disconnect paradox. We predict that for some of these active choosers, their definition of school quality will match with how researchers and policy makers define school quality, but have an entirely different meaning. We also predict that low-SES parents who are active choosers filter their decision-making according to different priorities. It is important to understand the disconnect paradox in the school-based decision making process because choosing a good school improves a child’s future chances for completing high school and college and also has a long-term positive effect on career opportunities.
Out of 90 families that were sampled, 38 families were active choosers. The other 53 interviews consisted of parents who did not know that they had options to send their children to schools outside the zoned area, or parents who listed constraints to their ability to decide to go outside the zoned area. There is an argument in the literature that claims low-income parents do not participate in school choice, but that is largely not true within this study. In order to better answer the research question of the disconnect that arises within low-income parent choosers, we will focus on the 38 families who were actively deciding to send their children to low-performing schools.
We are currently working on the analysis of active chooser families, and preliminary results show that families tend to use three different priorities to filter their school-based decisions. Social networks, status and needs-based resources are the three main priorities that parents claim when choosing a school. More interpretation and analysis is needed as to the implications of choosing schools based on these priorities. In conclusion, we hope that this research will shed light on the processes that low-SES parents use to choose school, a process that is not well understood by the current literature and has serious consequences. Choosing a school solely based on academics is a luxury, one that many low-SES families cannot afford and it is imperative to understand how these parents make decisions and talk about education within constraints.
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