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Choosing Out: Academic Reasons Behind the Rise in Families Opting Out

At the heart of the argument for school choice exists this simple premise: Parents know what’s best for their kids.

Giving parents solid school choices, the thinking goes—whether traditional public schools, charters, or private schools—empowers them to choose the option that’s best for their family, and their child’s long-term success.

Open enrollment programs in cities such as New Orleans are built on the principle that parents and students are best-equipped to decide what schools to attend. New Orleans is a special case—because nearly all of the city’s schools are charters. Its open-enrollment policy provides a unique glimpse into how and why parents vet competing schools when given total freedom of choice.

Academics and rigor, it turns out, aren’t always leading indicators in that decision. As former New Orleans charter school teacher Cassady Rosenblum opined recently in a column for the LA Times, that’s sometimes to the detriment of the child.

“Over and over again, I watched parents make choices that weren’t academically sound—a giant wrinkle for parent-choice theory. While I’ve been thrilled to see New Orleans parents choosing more A and B schools in recent years, thousands of students remain enrolled in lower-performing schools while seats at better schools remain open. Students who could have gone to college may never get the chance.”

There are any number of reasons why parents might prioritize aspects other than academics when choosing a school, writes Rosenblum. As school choice gains steam across the country, understanding these factors could help schools keep families enrolled and engaged.

The lasting effects of a bad reputation

You’ve heard the old PR adage, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” When it comes to public schools, nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that bad publicity can have a crippling effect on a school’s or district’s reputation—and once the hit occurs, it can prove nearly impossible to overcome.

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Rosenblum recounts the story of one local charter that, after years of student fights and violence, got a reputation among city parents as “rough” and unsafe. Despite successful attempts to transform the school’s climate, the bad reputation stuck, and parents continued to send their children elsewhere.

The allure of something new

Everyone likes things that are new. It’s why we’re constantly upgrading our smartphones and our cars. For many K12 students and parents, the promise of a new school and all the trappings is often too good to pass up.

For more on school market share, read 5 myths about school choice

Choosing a school amounts to a personal, oftentimes unpredictable, decision. Rosenblum says some families cite athletics as the deciding factor. Other parents cite political or religious motivations. For many parents, the personal relationships they have with school leaders, staff, and others are critical to the decision.

A recent guide on market share from K12 Insight (Disclosure: K12 Insight publishes TrustED) says that school choice decisions often stem from negative personal interactions as opposed to academic performance. That’s a big reason why many school districts are doubling down on improving the customer service experience.

What factors inform school choice decisions in your district? What steps is your school or district taking to stay competitive in the age of choice? Tell us in the comments.