By J. Celeste Lay, Tulane University
In the last 20 years, school choice options have proliferated in many cities and states. No city exemplifies this move to school choice more than New Orleans. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, school reformers dismantled the low-performing school district and replaced it primarily with autonomous charter schools. As of 2014, over 90% of its public school students were in a charter school – the highest proportion for a major city in the nation. In New Orleans, there are no default neighborhood schools, meaning that parents must apply for admission and select a school for their children.
In this system, the information needs are high so that parents can understand the range of options and how to effectively express their preferences in a new and ever-changing choice process. This paper examines not only which sources of information parents are most reliant on, but also whether those who rely on more objective sources are more satisfied with their choices and more likely to enroll their children in higher performing schools than those who rely on sources with inherent biases.
Economic theories of rational choice suggest that having more information should lead people to make decisions that are closer to their interests and to be more satisfied with their choices. The psychological literature on decision-making, however, demonstrates that more information is not necessarily better. Having too many options or too much information can be overwhelming. According to a popular account, at a certain point, “Choice no longer liberates,” it “debilitates” (Schwartz 2004, 2). Information “overload” has been associated with less confidence (Chernev 2003) and satisfaction in one’s choices (Jacoby 1984; Lee and Lee 2004; Diehl and Poynor 2010; Mogilner, et al. 2008). A seminal study argues that when individuals have more options and more information, they “feel more responsible for the choices they make, resulting in frustration with the choice-making process and dissatisfaction with their choices…” leading to “more regret about the choices they had made” (Iyengar and Lepper 2000, 1003).
This line of work also indicates that the information overload that comes with having too many options or too much information can lead to suboptimal decisions (Jacoby, et al. 1974; Malhotra 1982; Hastings and Weinstein 2007). Theories of school choice, however, are based on the idea that more informed parents will make better choices, leading to improvements in the school system as a whole as lower performing schools fail because students flock to the better schools.
Are Parents Using Objective Sources More Confident in Their Choice?
Due to a dearth of quality information and new and ever-changing enrollment system, in 2007 a group formed a nonprofit association to publish a comprehensive, objective Parent Guide that details information about all publicly funded schools and the application process. This Guide is the most comprehensive source for “one stop shopping” for parents. I expect that parents who rely on it should be better informed, better able to make decisions that are closer to their values and interests, and ultimately more satisfied with their choice. If school choice advocates are correct, their children should also be more likely to be enrolled in higher performing schools than those whose parents rely primarily on word-of-mouth and school advertising.
Using a survey of New Orleans parents with children enrolled in a public school, the results indicate that parents utilized many sources as they made their school choice. Those who relied on the Parent Guide were less likely to believe their child got into his or her first choice school than those who did not. And, those who used their social networks and school marketing materials were more satisfied with their choice. The data cannot definitively show whether parents using the Guide were less satisfied because they were overwhelmed by the amount of information or whether they were simply better informed about options that may not have been open to them.
However, the results show that parents who used a greater number of sources were not more confident in their choice, suggesting that having more information is not driving parental satisfaction. Instead, parents using the Guide may have become frustrated with the flood of information before them.
Are More Informed Parents More Likely to Enroll Children in High-performing Schools?
Finally, I examined whether those who relied on more comprehensive information were more likely to enroll their child in a high-performing school. On this, there were no significant relationships between information source or number of sources and the School Performance Score of the selected school. Instead, enrollment in a high performing school was closely associated with demographic factors. Parents who were Black or poor were significantly less likely to have a child enrolled in a high performing school, even controlling for information source.
In 2011, approximately 95% of the students in the D and F schools in New Orleans were Black. About 90% of those in C schools were Black; 87% of students in B schools were Black; and only 60% of those in A schools were Black. In essence, Black and/or poor parents can use any information source and they remain less likely to have a child in one of the city’s best schools. Their exclusion from these schools is not the result of parental ignorance or “bad” choices. Further, given that parents give the same reasons for selecting a school regardless of race or class, these demographic differences in enrollment patterns are not because these parents have distinct preferences, but rather they are due to the intentional actions of schools.
From a policy perspective, if parents who utilize more comprehensive information sources are more satisfied and confident in their choices and more likely to enroll their kids in high performing schools, then the solution is simple: policy makers should ensure that this type of information gets into the hands of more parents. The policy solution is less clear, however, when using these sources is associated with less confidence and satisfaction. One potential work-around may be for objective information to be presented in a different format. Perhaps it would be better to present a greater number of specialized publications about schools that each has less total information so as not to overwhelm parents. For example, if one is enrolling her child in kindergarten, she may only need information at this time about elementary schools. Or, if one has a child with special needs, he may be served best with a specific publication dedicated to schools with focused programs for students with special needs.
Finally, that race and class are so closely associated with the school performance indicators suggests that merely providing parents with more and/or better information is not going to automatically result in equal opportunities. As long as public schools can selectively enroll students through the use of admissions tests and the like, Black and poor students are less likely to be able to enroll in higher performing schools. It is unfair, then, to blame these parents for enrolling their children in failing schools.