New Study Looks At How Local Parents Deal With School Choice

Nov 17, 2014

Nearly half of all rising sixth and ninth graders in Duval County Public Schools are not attending their neighborhood school, and a sizable portion are now attending charter schools.

That’s according to a months-long study on local school choice released Monday morning by the Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF), an education advocacy and research policy group.

Trey Csar, President of Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF)
Credit Rhema Thompson / WJCT

“Our goal here was really to take a look at how does the school choice system impact family and community members who have children in the community,” said JPEF President Trey Csar.

Beginning in July, researchers surveyed more than 1,000 parents of students in a variety of schools across Duval County to determine what prompted their decisions. They examined enrollment data on more than 200,000 students over the last five years.

The study found evidence that an increasing number of parents are opting to move their children out of traditional neighborhood schools and into so-called “choice schools”—outside charter schools, magnet programs or private schools. Findings suggested that was particularly true among students transitioning to middle and high school.

Among the research, the study found:

  • When it comes to choosing a school, parents across most school types cited teacher quality and safety as the two most important factors.
  • Over the last five years, 43 percent of public school rising sixth-graders did not transfer to their traditional neighborhood school. Likewise, 47 percent of rising ninth-graders opted out of their neighborhood school.
  • While Duval County remains below the statewide average in the percent of public school students enrolled in charters, that percentage is growing at a much higher rate. Since 2009, the percent of students enrolled in Duval County charter schools has grown by 344 percent, compared to 69 percent statewide.
  • Across the board, rising sixth graders in Duval County experienced about the same degree of decline in achievement and increase in behavior violations across the board.

Other top reasons parents listed for choosing a particular school included “academic performance of the school,” “the quality of its principals” and “the peer group their child would be around.”

JPEF Director of Data and Policy Jason Rose said some of the findings come in response to concerns raised by parents about their neighborhood middle schools.

“They were concerned about their child getting lost in their neighborhood school, the bad reputation of their local school, word-of-mouth about the safety of their local school,” he said. "So we looked, particularly, at kids who stayed in their neighborhood school versus kids who left their neighborhood school at sixth grade in terms of academic performance and behavior, and what we found was there was really no difference.”

Researchers note that because of the lack of available assessment data for private schools and homeschool, the finding only accounts for middle school students who have left neighborhood schools for charter or magnet programs.

Notably, while local magnet schools like Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and Stanton College Preparatory still receive the largest share of students who leave neighborhood schools, that number is in slight decline, while charter school numbers rise.

According to the study, nearly 67 percent of rising middle school students leaving their neighborhood schools went to local magnet programs in 2010-11. Last year, that dropped to 60 percent. Conversely, during the same time period the number of rising middle schoolers attending leaving for charters rose from 19 percent to 24 percent.

In that same timeframe, the number of charter schools that have opened in Duval County has also drastically increased from eight to 34 this year.

A recent report from Duval County Public Schools estimated the loss in tax dollars due to students leaving for charters in 2013-14 totaled about $51 million. The JPEF study notes that the loss in funding can translate into long-term strain on the district’s infrastructure.

“The real cost to the district is that part of the funding would go into district-wide operating costs to cover items such as transportation and other services shared among schools,” the study states.

Findings from the study also lend some support to concerns over “brain drain” in neighborhood schools, that is, the idea that choice schools are plucking the highest performing students from neighborhood schools.

Likewise, neighborhood schools are more likely to receive back low-performing students who previously left for a choice program.

“The lowest-performing group of students on average are those who were out of their traditional neighborhood zoned schools in fifth grade and returned to them for sixth grade,” the report states.

Among its recommendations for the district and schools within the county, JPEF proposes:

  • Creating an unified online portal, which can guide parents through all available school choice options in the county.
  • Piloting additional school choice options for students based on parent feedback and expectations.
  • Exploring the cost and logistics of moving toward a full open enrollment system for middle and high schools with transportation provided.
  • Creating clear and easy system for parents to tour the school of their interest.
  • Developing an easily understandable application and registration process for parents.
  • Creating a more active and collaborative relationship with parents and the community through parent and community committee groups.

JPEF will be holding two community webinars this week to discuss more findings from the story. The webinars take place 7:30 Monday and 12 p.m. Wednesday.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Final for Web Inbrief Vol 7 School Choice