Report says New Orleans parents need better information for school choice to work

A new report by the Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University that focused on the success of school choice as a policy of educational reform concluded that the current environment of choice, particularly from the perspective of parents, falls short.

The authors of “Spotlight on Choice” wrote “Based on the focus group discussions, we conclude that, due to limited seats at high quality schools and a complicated application process, school choice in New Orleans currently does an inadequate job providing all parents with access to the best schools for their children.”

The 42-page study, released late last month, focuses on the experiences of 81 racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse families representing approximately 132 students.

Nine focus groups were conducted over the summer of 2012.

John Ayers, executive director for the institute, said that the report helps to shine light on the “unintended but very serious consequences of an all-charter, all-choice,” system. More than 80 percent of students in New Orleans attend charter schools.

Choice is a two-sided coin, said Jill Zimmerman, research manager at the institute and one of the report’s authors. When choice works, and parents indeed have the opportunity to send their kids to a good school, it’s a great concept. But when the choices of great schools are limited, especially in a landscape where 66 percent of schools received either a “D” or an “F” as their latest state-calculated school performance score, it can be very stressful for parents to take on the responsibility of choice, Zimmerman said.

“School choice is intended to give parents access to higher quality schools that best meet the needs of their individual children, but choice among limited high quality options may not feel like choice at all,” according to the report.

The study found that difficulties were compounded for parents of students with special needs.

One of the report’s key findings was that misinformation about admission requirements and the application process is rampant and widespread across all demographics.

Zimmerman said that it is important to note that the cause of misinformation is not the fault of the parents doing something wrong, but rather the fault of the system she described as “labyrinthine.”

Parents get most of their information from other parents, Zimmerman said, and misinformation can have the effect of a game of “telephone.”

Schools need to better communicate information through parents, not just to parents, she said.

Instead of changing where parents get their information, Ayers said, the schools and districts need to utilize how they already get information and go to where the parents already are gathering, as well as improve community engagement.

Aesha Rasheed, editor and publisher of the New Orleans Parents’ Guide to Public Schools and one of the facilitators for the study’s parent focus groups, said that more opportunities need to be created for parents to get together and talk as a way of learning, and then seeding those conversations with good information. Allowing parents to share experiences and think critically is a more effective approach than the districts trying to control the message or the experience, Rasheed said.

For her annual guide, Rasheed said that one of the biggest challenges in collecting timely and accurate data is that the system is in a “constant state of flux.”

With schools constantly moving, closing, opening and changing operators, Rasheed said that in the few months between when they start collecting information in the fall to when the guide is officially released the week of Feb. 18, numerous things have already changed.

The means and rules of applying are also undergoing constant change, she noted. Rasheed acknowledges that the changes being made to the OneApp, now in its second year, are making the streamlined, single application process better. But she said that the changes are nonetheless challenging for parents to understand and navigate.

In addition, while the all of the Recovery School District and direct-run Orleans Parish School Board schools are now part of the OneApp, all of the OPSB charters have refused to participate voluntarily, which includes some of the highest-rated schools in the city.

“From my perspective, centralized enrollment is critical for making the process fair and equitable,” Rasheed said.

Gabriela Fighetti, student enrollment director for the RSD, made nearly the identical statement about the need for all public schools to participate. “From our perspective it’s critical for the process to be equal,” Fighetti said.

The seats in high quality schools are a precious commodity and a public good, Fighetti said, and she said her goal, for all 40,000 students in the city, is to be able to “look every family in the face and say that your child was assigned to a school in a way that was fair, transparent, and efficient.”

Fighetti said her primary argument to the schools that refuse to participate until they will be forced to when their contracts are renewed is as follows: “Centralizing enrollment is not a policy change: If the way you are admitting students now is legal, than nothing will change.”

Fighetti said she finds resources like the Cowen report valuable, and many of the concerns expressed by parents through the report mirror the same things they are working to address. That includes changes to this year’s OneApp like making it a priority to keep siblings together and making the appeals process risk-free so parents won’t lose their original seat.

“Every school needs to be on the OneApp, whatever it takes for that to happen,” echoed Zimmerman, also echoing the report’s first recommendation for policy makers.

The report’s other recommendations to policy makers include communicating admission requirements more clearly, helping schools and parents meaningfully engage parents so that they have a voice in improving their children’s schools, providing parents with access to reliable and relevant information, (including the perspective of other parents) and ensuring that students with special education needs are able to receive services at the school of their choice.

The study also found that parents are willing to make the needed sacrifices to get their kids to the best available schools, but many would prefer community schools close to home. Common anecdotes like putting elementary school students on buses at 5 a.m. to go to a school on the other side of the city need to be addressed, it said.

The report also recommends that policy makers work to “provide parents with quality school choices close to home by increasing the number of and capacity at high quality schools in under served neighborhoods.”

Seven years out, Ayers said it is also time to see a slow down in the constant mobility of the current environment. “The evidence is clear that kids need stability to learn,” he said.