When School Choice Means School’s Choice

Parents of students who are “harder to educate” may have a hard time getting schools to reply to their emails about how to apply.

Hal Bergman / Getty

Children should have equal access to a high-quality education. It’s a popular talking point among both the left and the right because it’s non-objectionable—yet it’s far from the reality of American primary and secondary education. As the landmark Reagan-administration report, A Nation at Risk, put it 35 years ago, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Advocates for so-called school choice, however, argue that they have a solution: If you provide students and families with a broad range of options—including charter schools, private schools, and traditional public schools—they can choose the one that best suits them. In theory, the schools would compete with one another, vying for students, and the competition itself would spur them all to improve, as Peter Bergman, a professor of economics and education at Columbia University, told me. Ideally, that competition is open to all students equally, as it is that sort of open free-for-all that ought to produce the best results.

Of course, for this to work, parents need to know about the options available to them. Research has shown that there are significant barriers to choice, among them access to transportation, enrollment issues, and a lack of information about the schools. A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research adds another dimension to this problem: Schools themselves may play a role in encouraging more “desirable” students to enroll, meaning that often it’s more the schools choosing the students than the reverse.

The study, authored by Bergman and Isaac McFarlin, a professor of education at the University of Florida, examines the beginning of the school-choice process: inquiries about how to apply. In a randomized test, the researchers sent emails from fictitious parents to more than 6,000 charters and traditional public schools in areas with school choice. “Each email,” Bergman and McFarlin wrote, “signaled one of the following randomly-assigned attributes about the student: their disability status, poor behavior, high or low prior academic achievement, or no indication of these characteristics.” The pair wanted to see whether schools provided the same information to all parents, regardless of any difficulties alluded to in the emails.

Ultimately, Bergman told me, they found that the schools they emailed are less likely to respond to students who are perceived as “harder to educate.” The charter schools, he added, were “particularly less likely to respond to students with a particular [individualized educational plan]”—meaning students who have a special need that would require them to be taught in a separate classroom. This “cream-skimming,” or providing information only to high-value students, is a “key source of potential inequality,” Bergman said.

An easy takeaway from the report, McFarlin told me, would be that “charter schools discriminate against special-needs kids,” but that would be an incomplete assessment, since the schools they emailed replied to the parents of any student with any disadvantage—behavioral issues, low grades, or special needs—at similar rates. Now that researchers know whether schools responded to the emails, the next step is digging into the responses to see if they are actively discouraging certain students from applying.

In the meantime, Bergman and McFarlin hope that this sparks a conversation about how the subtle discrimination of not responding to an email can create an information gap for families in the application process. School choice, with a goal of equitable access, could work, they say, but only if it truly allows the students to choose schools, rather than allowing the schools to choose students.