The 5 Ways Parents Choose Schools

photo: choose schools
Students at Metro Charter School, Los Angeles. Photo by Flickr user Neon Tommy, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There are more ways to select your child’s school than you might realize. This overview of the five ways American families choose schools is designed to prompt your own thinking about whether one of these ways of choosing schools might be right for your family.

Move into a desirable school district or school attendance zone

No less than 19% of U.S. public school parents say they moved to their current neighborhood because of the quality of schools there.1 Given that the entire country is divided into school districts and most districts still use attendance zone–based enrollment systems, this is probably the number-one way parents choose schools.

Choose a private school

Private schools are theoretically accessible to the vast majority of Americans. According to research by the Brookings Institutions, about 82% of families have access to a private elementary school within a five-mile radius of their home.

In actuality, 10% of U.S. students are enrolled in private schools. However, it’s likely that more than 10% of families would like to send their children to private school if they could. According to research by EdChoice, about 40% of parents would prefer to send their children to private school, if they could afford it and get admitted. Some states have implemented voucher or tax credit programs to increase access to private education. Several hundred thousand students participate in these programs today.

Interestingly, although 80% of private schools are religious, many parents who send their children to religious private schools are likely not making that choice primarily because of religion. According to a 2017 EdChoice survey, “individual attention,” “class size,” “better education,” and “discipline/structure” were all cited as more important than “religious reasons” among parents who ultimately chose private school.2

Choose a charter school

Charter schools have grown dramatically, to the point that more than 6% of U.S. children are enrolled. Now, 208 public school districts have more than 10% of their students in charter schools. Los Angeles Unified School District alone has 163,720 students in charter schools, about 26% of students in the district.3

According to Brookings research, about 46% of U.S. families have access to at least one charter school within five miles. However, as the report points out, charter school access depends a lot on where you live. Of urban families, 68% have access to a charter school within 10 miles, compared to only 17% of rural families.4

As with private schools, more parents would like to send their children to charter schools than currently do. In a 2017 EdChoice poll, about 15% of parents said they would prefer to send their children to a charter school if given the choice.5

Choose a district public school outside your neighborhood or district

Some districts allow families to enroll in a school within their school district other than their assigned school, or even to enroll children in schools in neighboring districts. San Francisco, for example, requires all families to select their preferred school. Many larger districts offer magnet or alternative schools, some selective, that are designed to attract families from a wider region and to encourage socioeconomic integration.

While participation numbers are hard to come by, many states allow districts to offer open enrollment, meaning families can choose among the district’s schools and also among schools within neighboring districts. In fact, 28 states require such open enrollment in at least some circumstances. To see where your state stands, access your state’s profile, provided by the Education Commission of the States.

Altogether, 37% of American parents report that public school choice is available where they live, and 31% say they considered public schools other than their assigned school (these numbers include charter school choices). Interestingly, perception of school choice varies by region. Only 22% of Northeastern parents say they can choose among public schools, whereas 34% of Southern parents, 42% of Midwestern parents, and nearly 49% of Western parents say the same.6

Homeschool your children

Approximately 3% of the school-age population is homeschooled, perhaps the most unusual form of school choice. Homeschooling is legal in every state, although some states provide more oversight than others. The most common reasons parents give for homeschooling their children are concerns about school environment, to provide religious or moral instruction, and dissatisfaction with academic instruction at schools.7

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The 5 Ways Parents Choose Schools
  1. National Center for Education Statistics: Parent Choice Table — Percentage of students enrolled in grades 1 through 12 whose parents reported having public school choice, considered other schools, reported current school was their first choice, or moved to their current neighborhood for the public school, by school type and selected child and household characteristics: 2012.
  2. Paul DiPerna, Michael Shaw, Andrew D. Catt, 2017 Schooling in America, published by EdChoice.
  3. Rebecca David, Kevin Hesla, and Susan Aud Pendergrass, A Growing Movement: America’s Largest Public Charter School Communities, report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
  4. Matthew M. Chingos and Kristin Blagg, Who could benefit from school choice? Mapping access to public and private schools, Brookings Institution.
  5. 2017 Schooling in America report.
  6. National Center for Education Statistics: Parent Choice Table.
  7. Fast facts: Homeschooling from the National Center for Education Statistics and Wikipedia: Homeschooling in the United States.