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Active Choice or Default Decision? When Families Who Reside in a Competitive School Choice Environment Enroll Children in Their District Schools

The expansion of public school choice was an important component of the sweeping educational reforms enacted in the United States at both the state and federal levels during the 1990s. At that time, it primarily took the form of charter schools and inter-district open enrollment programs. Scholars have thoroughly studied the multitude of effects on students who exit their geographically-assigned schools and on those who are left behind. However, there has been little investigation of the school enrollment decision making processes of families who live in competitive educational environments and send their children to the district schools. Such scholarship is necessary in order to have a complete understanding of the impact that school choice policies have on educational achievement and equity of opportunity. This mixed methods study helps fill that research gap. It took place in a small district in western Massachusetts that was both a top sender and a top receiver of students. Findings show that the local public schools were an important factor in participants’ decisions to live in the district, almost all of the parents were aware that they had educational options at the time of their children’s school enrollment, and the majority of parents explored them. Furthermore, participants gave consideration to academic and social-emotional characteristics of schools under consideration during their decision making processes. Families who reside in competitive educational environments and send their children to the district schools should therefore be considered as actively exercising school choice. This has implications for researchers and lawmakers who should include this population when they create, implement, and assess school choice policies. It is also important for district leaders to recognize that they are part of the local educational marketplace and should respond competitively. Further research is needed to understand the extent to which parents of color and parents with limited household incomes who reside in places with similar conditions are intentionally choosing their district schools.
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