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What happens when you give parents a list of over 80 schools and tell them to pick? What are they looking for? Are they open to traveling across town for parent-teacher conferences for a school with higher test scores?

We get some answers to questions like these from a report released by the Education Resource Alliance for New Orleans, which is based at Tulane University. The study used data from New Orleans’s centralized school application system, which has been adopted by most of the city’s public schools.

New Orleans schools
Students study at Akili Academy, one of dozens of charter schools in New Orleans. (Photo: Sarah Garland)

Theoretically all of the city’s public and charter schools have been open to all residents since 2005 – when, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, almost all school attendance zones were dismantled. In practice, however, some of the city’s highest performing schools still erect barriers to unfettered choice – by not providing transportation for example, the report notes.

When ranking their top choices, New Orleans parents tend to prefer schools that have higher state test scores, that offer extracurriculars, that have names that were around before Katrina, and that are closer to home.

Despite this preference to have their kids close to home, the report finds that 86 percent of New Orleans students now attend a school other than the one closest to where they live and that one in four students now commute to schools more than five miles from their home.

Parent’s preferences play out differently based on the age of their kids. When families are looking at high schools, the availability of extracurriculars like football and band take special prominence. When looking for an elementary school, the availability of after-school care and the distance from home are particularly important.

The report also takes a special look at how low-income families choose schools, as politicians often tout school choice programs like New Orleans’s as especially beneficial for families without the means to either opt for private schools or move into better school districts.

The authors found that while students from the city’s lowest-income families are attending schools with higher test scores than before Katrina, these families care less about test scores than higher income families.

The study divides the history of school choice in New Orleans into three periods: before the hurricane, before the common application when parents submitted separate applications to each school, and after the introduction of the application system as well as school letter grades, based chiefly on state test scores.

By comparing 2011 and 2013 enrollment data, the researchers found that after the introduction of a centralized application system and letter grades, parents began to focus more on school test scores.

“Choice is not enough and it is only real when parents are well informed and can readily access the schools they prefer,” the report concludes.

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