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More Than Scores: An Analysis of Why and How Parents Choose Private Schools

School Choice

Author(s): Benjamin Scafidi, Jim Kelly

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

November 2013

Executive Summary
This report uses the results of a survey administered to Georgia parents of K–12 private school scholarship recipients to address three questions:
• In choosing the private school education best suited for the overall needs of their children, do parents primarily focus on the results from standardized tests administered to students attending the school or do they rely on a variety of factors, including student safety, class size, classroom discipline, religious education, high school completion and post-secondary success, and a greater sense of community?
• To enable parents to make informed choices regarding  the education of their children, what information  should private schools provide to them and to the  community at large?
• If state and local governments empowered parents  to educate their children in the public or private  schools of their choice, and parents were able to  secure relevant information relating to those choices,  would a more efficient “spontaneous education  order” arise?We address those questions in light of the following:
• Frustrated by the failure of many local public school  districts to educate their students adequately,  parents, politicians, and policymakers are  considering alternative systems for the delivery of  K–12 education in America.
• American youth, their parents, and educators are  facing a wide range of social and cultural challenges  that add great complexity and uncertainty to the  K–12 education mission.
• The implementation of K–12 school choice programs  (e.g., tax-credit scholarships and vouchers) in many  states is producing a large number of parents who,  for a variety of reasons, have transferred their  children from public to private schools.In 2013, Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, Inc. (GOAL), a tax-exempt, nonprofit student scholarship organization operating under Georgia’s Education Expense Credit (i.e., tax-credit scholarship) law, asked the parents of scholarship recipients to complete a survey pertaining to the reasons they chose a private school for their children and the information about private schools that they deem important to the school selection process.The results of the surveys completed by 754 GOAL parents indicate they have a variety of reasons for transferring their children from public schools to private schools and that they rely on a wide variety of information in evaluating prospective private schools. Key findings from the survey include:
• Surveyed parents were overwhelmingly satisfied with their private school choice, with 98.6 percent of parents being “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their decision to send their children to a private school using a GOAL scholarship.
• The top five reasons why parents chose a private school for their children are all related to school climate and classroom management, including “better student discipline” (50.9 percent), “better learning environment” (50.8 percent), “smaller class sizes” (48.9 percent), “improved student safety” (46.8 percent), and “more individual attention for my child” (39.3 percent).
• Student performance on standardized test scores is one of the least important pieces of information upon which parents base their decision regarding the private school to which they send their children. Only 10.2 percent of the parents who completed the survey listed higher standardized test scores as one of their top five reasons why they chose a particular private school for their child.
• Parents desire a wide variety of information to help them decide where to send their children to school, including, but not limited to, the student-teacher ratio (84.2 percent), school accreditation (70.2 percent), curriculum and course descriptions (69.9percent), college acceptance rate (61.3 percent), and the availability of religious instruction (56 percent). In contrast, only 21.5 percent of the parents listed “the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic makeup of the student population” as being important to their school selection process.
• Parents desire to be informed education consumers, with about 93 percent of parents indicating they would be willing to take three or more time- consuming steps to obtain the desired information.
• Contrary to the assertions of some school choice opponents, low-income parents, single parents, African-American parents, and parents with less than a college education are willing and able to be informed and active education consumers on behalf of their children.
• Because they risk losing students to other K–12 schools in the educational marketplace, private schools have an incentive to voluntarily provide the information desired by parents. Based on the survey results, the failure of a private school to provide information would (79 percent) or might (20 percent) negatively impact a parent’s decision on whether to send his or her children there.

By providing parents with private (e.g., tax-credit scholarship) or public (e.g., voucher) funds for the education of their children at the private schools of their choice, it is possible to create a spontaneous education order.

In a spontaneous education order, empowered parents would seek information about private or public schools in their communities. In turn, to remain competitive, private or public schools would need to publish or otherwise make available the information sought by parents. And, rather than implementing onerous “rules of organization” that are used to perpetuate and micro-manage a government run K–12 education monopoly, public officials would institute minimum “rules of just conduct,” which would protect the spontaneous education order from anti-democratic practices or tangible threats to child safety.

The adoption by many states of tax-credit scholarship or voucher programs is the first step toward building a pro- parent and pro-family spontaneous education order. To build on that important development:
• State and local officials and private schools should consider the reasons why parents are choosing to transfer their children from public schools to private schools.
• Parents should inform private schools about the information they deem important in making their decisions regarding the schools to which they send their children.
• Non-profit education foundations, policymakers, parents, school choice advocates, researchers, and associations of private independent schools should (1) communicate on how to build online platforms for the publication and sharing of information about private schools that parents deem important to the school selection process and (2) reach consensus on those minimum rules of just conduct that are necessary to prevent private schools from engaging in anti-democratic practices and to prevent private schools from creating environments that lead to tangible threats to child safety.
• Given the low priority parents place on standardized test scores in choosing the private schools best suited for their children, public officials should resist the temptation to impose national or state standards and testing on private schools or demand that private schools publish “report cards” emphasizing test score performance.

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