As President Donald Trump’s administration explores ways to expand charter schools across the country, parents in national surveys and those in St. Louis point to academic quality as their highest priority in selecting a school.
Research suggests that parents often don’t have a way to accurately compare the public education options. And there are several factors that parents take into account — including word-of-mouth and proximity to one’s home — though more often than not, they choose a charter school or district school based on their child’s current and future success instead of the school’s overall performance.
Brandy Fowler ruled out the St. Louis public school district when her daughter started kindergarten a decade ago because it wasn’t meeting state standards at the time, instead sending her to charter school Gateway Science Academy.
“We had visited the district schools, but that was before the accreditations had started coming back, so the ones in our area did not have their accreditation still, and I wanted something that was really going to push college,” Fowler said after a recent end-of-the-year awards ceremony in the school’s gym.
Across the gym, Serena Johnson said she chose Gateway two years ago because she wanted a small school for her son, who had been home-schooled.
“I had a friend whose children were attending the middle school, and I asked her what she thought about it and she liked it,” Johnson said. “It being a charter school, I felt like he would not get lost in the crowd after coming from a very small setting in the home.”
Johnson said she didn’t really look at any other charter schools, except to see how many students they had. She didn’t consider the district.
That’s not uncommon, according to Indiana University education policy professor Chris Lubienski, who has researched parent decision-making and the impact of charter schools in Michigan, Denver and New Orleans.
“They often look for any alternatives to their public school, but the overall data that we have suggests that actually public schools are at least as effective, and often more effective, than both charter and private schools in a lot of ways,” Lubienski said.
Lubienski explained that he and other researchers looked at national test results and took into account known predictors of student success, such as family income and parent education levels, to come to that conclusion.
St. Louis Public Schools, though still under state control, is back to meeting academic benchmarks. Spokesman Patrick Wallace said parents sometimes turn to the district after having a bad experience with a charter school.
The power of suggestion
A parent’s best way to judge a school, Lubienski said, may be a combination of recommendations and classroom visits.
“Parents who have more advantages, they often are connected to other parents who’ve had experiences, so they can learn from word of mouth what they’re friends think are good schools and good options, and which ones to avoid,” Lubienski said. “They also have more time to go and basically shop for schools.”
Tisha and Branden Brooks are a good example of that method. When they moved to St. Louis four years ago, people told them to stay away from the city school district, so they looked at nearby charter schools for their son and daughter.
But they also fell in line with what other research has shown: location and programming are also major factors. The Brooks family chose St. Louis Language Immersion School in part because they liked the idea of their children becoming bilingual and because it was close to their home in the Shaw neighborhood.
“For us it was really important to be a part of a neighborhood school. And so that’s one of the reasons we ended up at the Spanish School, because it’s like literally a mile from our house. A lot of their friends are in walking distance from our house,” Tisha Brooks said.
The school saw a drop in state rankings in 2016, though Lubienski pointed out that a school’s graduation rates and test scores often say more about the children attending the school than it does about the school itself.
And, for Tisha Brooks, it’s about how well their children are doing individually.
“Our children are scoring either at or above where they're supposed to be in terms of grade level and aptitude so they're really thriving. And you know we know that their teachers — that’s the other thing, their teachers have been fantastic,” she said.
The Brooks family also considered cachet and resources when choosing a school, leading them to an ongoing debate over where to send their children to high school.
“I had a private school experience. I'm still kind of partial to it,” Branden Brooks said, adding that he wants his kids to have what he calls “social capital.”
Tisha Brooks said she would like to support the St. Louis school district, but worries her children would have fewer opportunities at a regular district school.
“You know that not putting your child in makes it very difficult to support the schools,” she said. “But at the same time you also want to support your child.”
For now, they’ve found middle ground in charter schools.
Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille