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It’s Insulting to Act Like Low-Income Families Aren’t Qualified to Pick the Best School for Their Children
Andrew Pillow
September 7, 2019

In their opposition to school choice, critics have come up with many novel arguments. Most of them are not good. But perhaps the worst argument is the one that implies that low-income or less educated families are not necessarily qualified to judge the quality of a school. 

The “Parents don’t always choose the best school” argument is often used to dismiss the benefits school choice on the grounds that the low-income families don’t always act in their own best interest and they would be better off in a system with less options – In other words the literal definition of paternalism.

Even if that notion were true, it still wouldn’t mean people don’t deserve a choice. But it’s also not true. 

Parents are aware of what kind of school they are sending their children to. They might not be able to rattle off the scores from the latest round of standardized testing. They might not be able to regurgitate the data about their matriculation to 4-year universities. However, parents generally know the reputation of the schools in their area. Remember, parents live and work in the areas around these schools. In many cases they know people who have went to them and in some cases, they have attended the schools themselves. Just because their knowledge of schools doesn’t conform to the standards of partisan critics doesn’t mean that they are in any way less qualified to make decisions about where the kids go to school than some distant bureaucrat. 

On the outside looking in, it is easy to criticize families for enrolling their children in failing schools. But when you dive deep you see the reasoning behind those decisions.

First of all, the definition of a “good” school is hardly conclusive. A lot of people like to define that by test scores, but test scores don’t tell the whole story. For example, many affluent suburban schools that have good test scores still fail to educate underserved black and brown students in their schools just like the inner-city schools they are supposedly so much better than.

Second, test scores are simply not the main priority for many parents. As a matter of fact, nationally, test scores ranked low as a primary motivator for parents in selecting a private school and private school parents are supposedly the most selective. Other, more practical reasons seem to be the biggest drivers:

Transportation: Many low-income families depend on school transportation so if a school doesn’t offer it or offer it to the area in which they live, then that school is not an option for that family. (coincidently many schools that are praised for their scores don’t offer bussing and/or are not in the neighborhood)

Sports: If football has been a big motivator for your son all through school, you probably aren’t going to send him to a school that is too small to field a team. 

Religion: For parents selecting a private school or taking advantage of vouchers, the school’s religious teachings are a higher priority.

Behavior: Some children have behavioral needs that require schools with special services or the leeway to allow them to succeed. Parents of these children likely won’t pick some super strict prep academy no matter how impressive the grades are. 

Demographics and Culture: Many parents look for demographic and cultural traits when selecting a school.

Finally, the biggest elephant in the room is the fact that parents DO in fact take academic quality into account when they choose a school. If that wasn’t the case, then successful schools wouldn’t have to hold lotteries for limited numbers of spots. If that wasn’t the case, schools and school districts that have shrinking test scores wouldn’t also see shrinking enrollment.

Some parents have the audacity to believe that any school should be able to educate their child and choose schools based on other factors. That belief shouldn’t mark them as unfit or incapable of making appropriate decisions. Nor should it be used as evidence in an argument to take their choices away.

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