Report: Half of LA families are using school choice programs, but many struggle to find quality options
Sarah Favot | January 25, 2017
Half of Los Angeles public school students are part of school choice programs, but that doesn’t mean quality options are accessible for all students, according to a report released Wednesday.
Parent Revolution, an LA group that works with parents through organizing, individual school choice and advocacy, spent a year helping families enroll in school choice programs and analyzed its findings regarding access to these programs.
Its recommendations for LA Unified and charter school leaders include making it easier for parents to navigate school choice by aligning application processes, publishing comparable data about school quality and providing information to families about school choice options as students matriculate from elementary to middle to high school.
Parent Revolution’s report is based on research and data from families who are part of its Choice4LA program launched a year ago to help low-income families in South Los Angeles find better quality schools for their children.
Seth Litt, executive director of Parent Revolution, emphasized that school choice should be about quality public schools and not just choice for choice’s sake.
“Not every choice results in a better school, and there are conditions and supports that allow families to choose quality schools. Absent those, it can result in schools that don’t result in a better education for children,” Litt said.
The two biggest choice programs in the 660,000-student LA Unified are independent charter schools, which serve more than 101,000 students, and the district’s magnet programs, which enroll more than 67,000 students. Other choice programs include the district’s “Zones of Choice” for high schools, open enrollment, permits, affiliated charters and schools for advanced studies. Each of these programs has its own criteria and separate application and enrollment processes, with different deadlines. There is no central resource where families can learn about and compare all of their public school options.
The district is moving toward aligning its school choice enrollment and application processes, but it will not include independent charter schools. Charters face some challenges toward a unified enrollment process, given that if they were to change their application process, it would be considered a “material revision” that must be approved by their charter authorizer — the LA Unified school board.
About half of LA students are in a school choice program, but Parent Revolution wants to reach out to parents who do not have access and face some challenges. Last year, the organization helped 420 families complete 515 applications for students.
This year the goal is 1,500 applications, Litt said.
The report showed that when families applied to more than one school, 47 percent applied to both a charter and district school. Fifty-three percent of those who received acceptance at more than one school enrolled in a charter school.
“When families have information on quality, they’re choosing between schools and programs, they’re not really choosing between governance models,” he said.
Last year, the program started after the application deadline for magnet schools, so Litt expects more parents will apply to district schools this year.
The families that enrolled in a new school through the program attended significantly stronger schools academically. The report showed that the new schools had proficiency rates that were on average 16 percentage points higher in English language arts and 9 percentage points better in math on state standardized tests.
Litt said the biggest challenge for families when it comes to choosing a school for their child is transportation.
“Families often work long hours and work might be in the opposite direction of where a quality school might be,” he said.
He said Parent Revolution reached out to about 1,000 families, but about half of them couldn’t find quality school options that they could get their child to every day.
Litt said he was surprised by the answers they received when families were asked what was the most helpful part of the Choice4LA program.
“It was really striking to us that one of the most empowering things was understanding the quality of their current school,” he said.
Nearly 80 percent of the families surveyed said they knew “a little” or “not much” about their child’s school.
“Given the competitive nature of many quality school options and the transportation challenges that limit many families, it is clear that a shortage of quality school options in South Los Angeles (and other low-income communities of Los Angeles) is one of the biggest barriers inhibiting the public school choice system from benefiting more students and families,” the report concludes.
Seven findings of the report:
1. Most families get information on school options through interpersonal relationships rather than online research
2. Families need and want better access to school quality information
3. Families want customized, individualized support
4. Non-profits and community organizations are being underutilized
5. Many families who have never attempted to exercise choice would do so if provided support
6. Families are motivated to explore choice for a wide variety of reasons
7. There are not enough quality schools to meet demand
The report recommends:
1. Focus on quality choices, not just choice
2. Simplify all steps of the process
3. Improve access to school quality data for families
4. Strengthen the role of people to provide customized and actionable support
Disclosure: LA School Report through its parent The 74 and Parent Revolution both receive funding from The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the California Community Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.