What We Know (and Don’t) About the Public Schools DC Parents Want

By Sujata Bhat

Sujata Bhat is Senior Manager of Public Engagement at Education Forward DC.

Parents in the District generally prefer schools for their kids that are close to home. But they will send them farther for schools that perform better and for schools that are more diverse. Interpreting those family choices, which can be found in DC’s school lottery data, is more complex than it might seem, however.

For example, there are no language immersion programs in Ward 8. How would policymakers know if families there would want one? Relatively few families in Ward 8 choose dual-language schools now, but perhaps that’s because it’s too difficult to get their child across town to a school of that type. Or might other factors, such as after-school options or safety weigh more heavily in their decision-making?

These are the kinds of questions Education Forward DC is asking as part of a research and advocacy initiative to better understand what kinds of schools families want, and to give them a voice in the kind of school options that move into their neighborhoods. Education Forward DC is investing in market research to better understand parents as consumers of education for their children.

Charter school operators, the DC Public Charter School Board and DC Public Schools have all used annual school lottery data to see what schools are most in demand. (And a June 2016 Mathematica Study offers useful findings from that data.) While we can see the choices families make within the current system, we don’t really know why families are making those choices, or what they might want independent of what’s already available.

Meanwhile, not every family gets what they want in the lottery, and at the same time there are unfilled seats at every grade level. This suggests a mismatch. What the system is offering isn’t lined up with what families want.

A few things we do know from the data:

  • Most families are making choices, rather than simply enrolling in the neighborhood school assigned to them.
  • The population of families choosing schools is generally reflective of the city’s makeup. For example, students in Ward 7 make up 19 percent of total public school enrollment and 18 percent of the families choosing schools.
  • About two-thirds of families are getting matched to one of the schools they select on their application. That’s a strong majority, but it still means thousands of families are not getting matched to the schools they most want.
  • Academic quality may not always be the most important factor to families—there are open seats at Tier 1 schools.
  • Parents often don’t care about whether a school is a traditional DCPS school or a charter school—in fact, many parents don’t even know which system oversees their child’s school.
  • Many parents gravitate toward language immersion schools, Montessori schools, and schools that are diverse – these program types tend to have long waiting lists.

Education Forward DC is funding research that will be used to inform all our investment strategies, and will be available to funders, school operators, and decision-makers so that they are equipped with information about what parents really want in schools in making critical decisions.