What Do Parents Want from Schools?
It Depends on How You Ask
RANGING FROM THE EXPANSION of inter- and intradistrict choice to the rapid diffusion of charter schools and including the hotly contested spread of vouchers, the opportunities for parents to choose their children's schools continue to grow. As choice has proliferated, researchers have increasingly focused on the role of parents as “citizen/consumers” and studied how parent-choice behavior will affect schools under more marketlike schooling arrangements (see, e.g., Chubb and Moe 1990; Smith and Meier 1995; Henig 1996; Schneider, Teske, and Marschall 2000; Moe 2001; Howell and Peterson 2002).
While many dimensions of parent-choice behavior have been analyzed, one of the most important, and one of the most contentious, is the question of what aspects of schools parents prefer and how these preferences will affect the socioeconomic and racial composition of schools, as well as their academic performance. At the core of these studies of parental preferences is the debate about whether or not, given choice, parents will select schools on educationally sound dimensions or make choices based on noneducational ones. In this chapter, we use both our survey and our Internet data to gain insight into parental preferences.
Our survey data confirm what virtually all other surveys find: parents say that the academic aspects of schools are most important to them in choosing and evaluating schools. These patterns, remarkably consistent across a growing number of studies, are reassuring to proponents of choice—because they seem to settle one of the most fundamental issues surrounding choice reforms. Indeed, given the consistency of results, it is even possible to believe that the issue is resolved: if we trust what they say, parents of all races and all socioeconomic strata will choose schools on educationally appropriate grounds.
But we believe that the issue is far from settled. After analyzing how parents search for information on DCSchoolSearch.com and how they responded to our e-mail survey, we will argue that the standard findings in the literature, based largely on telephone interviews, may not be as solid as they appear. We will show that in the privacy of their own homes or offices and “talking” only with their computers, parents reveal a different set of preferences than those that they routinely state in surveys. Spe