Understanding Perceptions and Drivers of School Choice Among DC Parents

By Margie Yeager

Margie Yeager is a Partner with our Advocacy investments team

At Education Forward DC, we believe that public schools in DC should reflect the citywide diversity of students and families’ needs and interests, so that every student can grow and learn in a setting that works for them. We are committed to better understanding what kinds of schools families want, and to ensuring that parents drive decision making about the school options that move into their neighborhoods. To that end, we partnered with Wakefield Research to better understand what parents care most about in selecting a school for their child and how they perceive schools in their Ward and across the city.

The study included 90-minute focus groups with 40 DC parents from Wards 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, and telephone and online surveys with more than 1,500 parents in DC who currently have students in elementary, middle and high schools in DC public and private schools. The data collection from the focus groups was conducted in early December 2017 and the telephone and online surveys were conducted from February through March 2018. The research results were reported in April 2018.

The research helped us to understand current perceptions of public schools in DC, identify how DC parents and guardians choose schools, and recognize what additional resources might be valuable to DC parents and guardians.

A few notable takeaways from the data:

  • 66% of DC parents believe that public school options are keeping up with the needs of their students, with very similar perceptions across parents with students in traditional district schools and public charter schools.
  • DC parents recognize that public schools have made progress but feel there is still significant room for improvement.   
  • Parents’ perceptions of school quality vary by where they live. Parents in Ward 8 have the strongest sense that there is still a need for improvement among public schools in DC.
  • The most important factors DC parents weigh when deciding which school to send their child to are teacher quality, academic performance, and school safety; this pattern is consistent across all parts of the city.
  • Parents evaluate teacher quality significantly through communication – both with parents on their child’s progress and effective engagement with each child in the classroom.
  • DC parents use a variety of resources to learn about school options. Of all the resources available to them: 58% of parents visit school websites, 57% rely on word-of-mouth, 48% visit My School DC, 32% participate in online parenting forums, and 27% attend community events.
  • Although DC parents are using a variety of resources to seek out information about schools, there is still a sizeable group who are not able to find what they’re looking for on their child’s school website or other sources.

The information collected from this research is meant to better understand the needs of parents as consumers of education for their children. We plan to use this data to inform thinking across our investment strategies, including supporting schools that are responsive to parent demand, public engagement that supports deepening families’ relationships with schools, and advocacy to ensure that policies are responsive to families’ needs. We will also continue to share our findings with government leaders, school operators, philanthropists, and other decision-makers across the city so that they can better understand what parents are looking for in schools when making critical decisions that impact their children.