How many parents want private schools, and how many just want options?

Travis Pillow

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice is out with its annual public opinion survey on schooling in America. It’s full of interesting findings, including one striking data point that probably deserves some deeper exploration.

The survey finds most 41 percent of parents would prefer private schools for their children, which about 36 percent would choose public schools, 12 percent would choose charter schools and 9 percent would would opt for home education.

The organization (which shares its namesake’s goal of promoting universal school choice) suggests in its rundown of survey findings that these numbers show a “glaring disconnect” between parents’ preferences and where they actually send their children, since 85 percent of children attend traditional public schools.

But does that really mean, if money were no object, parents would enroll in private schools en masse? Perhaps there’s more to the story.

During an event presenting the poll at the American Enterprise Institute, Matt Chingos of the Brookings Institution said researchers should “probe more deeply on choice among public schools.”

He suggested it’s possible the 41 percent of parents who indicated a private school preference might be assuming they don’t have other options among public schools.

“Is it because they’re thinking of the traditional public school option as fixed, as a given for them, or would they really be interested in a traditional public school, if it wasn’t the one in the neighborhood where they can afford to rent or buy a house?” Chingos asked. “Do these parents understand their choices, or do they live in a place where the choice architecture is so hopelessly complicated that they don’t actually know that they have different options?”

Other research suggests it’s possible some parents who participate in school choice programs aren’t always looking for a private school per se. They might simply want options beyond their zoned public school. A charter, a magnet school, or even a traditional public-school transfer might fit the bill.

There are some other potential confounding factors. Polls by Gallup and Education Next consistently show people seem to think more highly of the public schools their children attend than they do of public schools at large.

It might also be worth exploring whether parents state preferences based on private schools as a whole, or on a small number of exclusive, elite academies, and whether those considerations vary among different groups of parents.

In short, Chingos has a point. It would be interesting to probe these findings for some greater nuance. Charter school waiting lists, magnet school lotteries, and fast-growing, oversubscribed private school choice programs all suggest parents want more options, but there’s a lot we don’t know about what options they’d prefer.

The survey results, as well as details on methodology and questions asked, can be found here.

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