You Have More School Options than You Might Think

photo: choosing schools

If you’re like some parents I talk to, you may feel discouraged about your opportunity to get your child into a good school. You might be thinking to yourself, “Yeah, there are some great schools out there, but fat chance my child can actually get in.”

This kind of pessimism is understandable. Admission to the most sought-after public schools can be a crapshoot. Some private schools are extremely difficult to get into. There are neighborhoods with very few good schools, public or private; meanwhile some rural areas don’t have many schools at all.

But most families live in communities with multiple good schools and multiple pathways to gain admission. While finding and getting into a good school can feel overwhelming, it’s usually possible. In conversations with parents, I hear four flavors of pessimism that are sometimes unjustified, or at least overwrought.

1. “There’s only one good school near us.”

Maybe, but probably not.

It might be that you only know about one nearby good school. It might be that there’s only one school that you yourself went to or that you’ve heard is good. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t others.

Step one is to go to GreatSchools and input your home address in the search box. See what comes up one, five, or 10 miles from your home.

Chances are, you’re going to find some schools you don’t know about. They might be other schools within your district. They might be charter schools. (About 7% of U.S. children now attend charter schools.)1 They might be private schools. (The vast majority of U.S. families live within 10 miles of a private school.)2

Perhaps some of those schools aren’t very good or aren’t a great fit for your child or family. But some may be. The key point: When searching for a school, you don’t know until you know. You have to identify schools that are worthy of your consideration and then research their quality.

2. “My school district doesn’t offer choice.”

Sometimes that’s true, but often it’s not.

Yes, your school district might not proactively offer choices. They may assign families to schools based on address and that’s it. However, your state may require school districts to consider requests for transfers.

Altogether, 46 states plus the District of Columbia have some kind of open enrollment policy that requires districts to consider parent transfer requests. (As of January 2018, only Alabama, Illinois, Maryland, and North Carolina do not address open enrollment in state policy.) Thirty-five states have policies that allow students to select and attend another school within their district, while 42 have policies that allow students to select and attend another school outside their district.3

The catch is that some of these policies are voluntary, meaning districts don’t have to participate if they don’t want to. Of the 46 states with policies, 28 have mandatory provisions, meaning they require districts to offer 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.

3. “I can’t afford private school.”

Maybe, but you can’t know unless you try.

A friend of mine recently applied to an expensive, independent private high school for his daughter in San Francisco. He’s a computer software engineer who makes good money. You’d think his daughter would not get a scholarship, but she did. Sending his daughter there turns out to be a financially reasonable decision.

About 24% of students at independent schools receive some sort of financial aid. The average financial aid award is $16,913.4

Also, private schools are all over the map when it comes to tuition. While some independent schools charge upwards of $40,000 per year, most private schools are much cheaper. Some religious private schools charge only a few thousand dollars, and sometimes even that money can be negotiated for families with high need.

Finally, for some families in some states, it’s possible to send your child to private school using funds provided by the state. As of 2016, 27 states have some form of public support for private school choice. Typically, however, these programs are only available for students from low-income households, students attending failing schools (as defined by the state), students with disabilities, and students living in rural areas. The National Conference of State Legislatures provides a handy interactive map to learn more about your state’s options.

4. “There are good schools out there, but our child can’t get into them.”

True, you may not be able to get your child into the one school you most want, but if you open your mind to multiple possibilities and persist in your quest, there’s a very good chance your child can get into a school that will serve your whole family well.

You certainly should apply to hard-to-get-into schools that would be a great fit, even if your chances seem low. As they say in sports, “You can’t score if you don’t shoot.”

Admittedly, applying to schools is stressful and taxing. You have to put a lot of effort into finding the right schools and applying. That’s true whether we’re talking about public or private schools. And there is no way to know how the process will turn out. That’s the part that’s most difficult for many parents.

The challenge is to stay calm, find schools that really are a good match for your family, and put forth your best effort to help your child get in. Identify several of the good schools that are out there, pursue them all, and see where the chips fall.

If you do so, in my experience, you will find a good school for your child. It might take take awhile, but you will!

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You Have More School Options than You Might Think
  1. See A Growing Movement: America’s Largest Charter School Communities, a 2015 report by the National Association of Public Charter Schools. And see this map of charter school enrollment by state.
  2. See Who Could Benefit from School Choice? Mapping Access to Public and Private Schools, a 2017 report by the Brookings Institution.
  3. This data comes from the 2018 Open Enrollment Quick Guide from the Education Commission of the States. It provides an excellent summary of state-level policies.
  4. National Association of Independent Schools, Data and Analysis for School Leadership, 2018.