What Do Parents Look for When Choosing a School?

It’s a topic that engenders plenty of discussion in district offices, teacher lounges, private schools, and real estate agencies: What do parents look for when choosing a school? It’s also a question with lots of practical implications for education, from what offerings will help attract families to how we should think about the roles of standardized testing.

Pollsters only rarely seem to wade into this, which means that a given poll can be eye-opening even in normal times, much less after a year or more of COVID-inspired disruption. Thus, EdChoice’s expansive new “2021 Schooling in America” survey is particularly timely, as it documents what a nationally representative sample of parents had to say on this question this summer.

Parents were asked what they looked for in a school and then were given the option of offering multiple responses. For parents in traditional public school districts, the top three responses were the location of the school (mentioned by 42%), socialization or a child’s peers (38%), or being the family’s neighborhood school (34%). The fourth most commonly mentioned consideration was academic reputation (31%), the fifth was safety (28%), and the sixth was extracurricular activities (19%). Some considerations that typically garner a lot of attention ranked much lower than one might expect: a school’s diversity came in eighth (16%), class size was 11th (14%), and test scores were 13th (10%).

For private school parents, the calculus was markedly different. For those parents, academic reputation was the first consideration (mentioned by 40%), followed by safety (37%), and then character and values instruction (30%). A school’s structure/discipline (24%) and the degree of individual attention (24%) tied for fourth, with mention of school location (22%) coming next. For private school parents, class size finished seventh (20%), while test scores and diversity tied for ninth (16%).

Charter school parents shared a few key preferences with private school parents but also shared some distinctive concerns. Among charter schools parents, just as among private school parents, the top two considerations were academic reputation (35%) and safety (32%). For charter parents, though, these were closely followed by a cluster of closely-ranked priorities: character and values at 26%; a school’s structure and discipline at 25%; and location, socialization/peers, and class size all at 24%. For charter parents, test scores and individual attention tied for ninth (with both at 17%), with diversity just behind (16%).

What should be made of all this? For me, two takeaways stand out. First, parents are particularly concerned about academic reputation and school safety — especially when they’re actively choosing a school. Second, for all the attention devoted, for better or worse, to test scores, class size, and diversity in the popular media and in school materials, these just aren’t the things that most parents say they’re focused on. For those of us who tend to think that parents have the best sense of what’s right for their child, it’s well worth taking a few moments to contemplate what these parents may be telling us.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.