Does school choice limit options for some students?

One common criticism of school choice programs is that the most sought-after schools are able to select the students who are easiest to educate, thereby reducing options for those who need more support. One avenue that schools might use is discouraging families with high-needs children from applying.

To determine the degree to which schools encourage or discourage certain students from applying, Peter Bergman of Columbia University and Issac McFarlin Jr. sent emails from fictitious parents asking about student eligibility and application processes to 6,452 schools in 29 states and Washington, D.C. Some of these messages included randomly assigned characteristics related to disability, behavior, and achievement,  as well as information that implied race, household structure, and gender.

The baseline response rate to these emails was 53%, with lower response rates for students with special needs, behavior problems, or low achievement. (High achievement or good behavior did not garner higher responses than the baseline.)

Overall, traditional public schools and charter schools had the same response rate. However, charters were 7% less likely to respond to messages indicating a child had a significant special need, while traditional public schools showed no difference in response rate for these students.

In addition, schools were 2% less likely to respond to messages that appeared to come from Latinx families. Indicators that students came from two-parent homes increased the chances of a response for students with poor behavior and students from Black families. Indicators that students received good grades increased the changes of a response for Latinx families.

SOURCE: Bergman, P. & McFarlin, I. (2018, December). Education for all? A nationwide audit study of schools of choice. New York, NY: Columbia University.

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