Critics of school choice have long questioned the ability of parents to choose the best schools for their children. Critics fear that parents do not have the time, qualifications, or information to make informed decisions about the quality of their children's schools. New evidence tells us it's time to put this fear to rest.
Gathering data for the fourth annual Arizona Charter School Parental Satisfaction Survey, I surveyed parents of children attending 239 charter schools in Arizona, and asked them to grade their schools on 21 characteristics. At the same time, the Arizona Department of Education was preparing profiles of 163 charter schools, ranking them as excelling, improving, maintaining, or under performing. The department ranked elementary schools based on Stanford 9 and AIMS scores, and high schools based on AIMS scores and graduation and drop out rates. 112 of the charter schools ranked by the state were included in my parent survey.
Comparing the two report cards helps us answer the all-important question: Are parents good judges of school performance? The data suggest they are.
Across the board, state officials and parents gave nearly identical grades to the charter schools in question. On 16 of the 21 characteristics on which parents graded their charter schools, the highest grades went to Tempe Prep Academy, the one charter school rated "excellent" by education officials.
Moving down the line, the pattern of parallel ratings continues. The lowest-graded schools by parents were the schools most likely rated "under performing" by the state. In response to the question, "What grade would you give the charter school that your child attends?" the "excelling" school received an A average (4.03), the "improving" schools earned an A- (3.76), "maintaining" schools earned a B+ (3.57), and "under performing" schools received the lowest average grade of 3.42 (B).
This pattern is seen clearly by selecting the five schools in each state achievement profile category (there was only one school in the "excelling" category) with the largest number of parents responding to our survey and showing the average grade point average of each school on the "overall grade" question. The chart shows that for 11 of the 16 schools selected the pattern is exact.
Naturally, there are times when the state and parent assessments do not align, as is the case with the five schools listed at the bottom of the chart, but on average these findings hold. Moreover, those familiar with the five schools that do not fit the pattern argue they excel in some of the criteria determining the state rating, and so justify the parent rating, even if all the state criteria are not met. For instance, test scores may be relatively low even though growth in scores has been excellent.
The same pattern appears across the board for other questions on the parent survey relating to school quality. Parents gave the highest marks to excelling and improving charter schools when asked to evaluate the overall education their children had received, the amount the children had learned, the quality of reading, writing and math instruction, and the qualifications and performance of teachers.
Likewise, the rankings were consistent from high to low performing schools on questions related to the school mission, communication with parents, handling of parent complaints, opportunities for parent participation, discipline, class size, and school size. There was almost a one-to-one correspondence between parent views on the characteristics they deemed important to their children's education and the state achievement profiles.
It may be that parents inflate the grades they give their schools on most traits. That may be to rationalize their choices. Or it might be that their former public schools are much worse. Indeed, grades for their previous schools (also asked in the parent survey) were much lower than the grades for their current charter schools. It appears that inflation occurs at every quality of school, so the relative positioning is still accurate.
Because the parents graded their schools before the achievement rankings were calculated, the results of the state assessment could not have influenced their rankings. If the state's assessment system is accurate, then parents also have an accurate sense of school performance. This shows that parent surveys are a valuable resource tool for other parents interested in selecting charter schools.
School choice advocates have long understood that parents are capable of making informed decisions. Opponents of school choice, including many in the education establishment, have not shared this view of parental wisdom. It's time for them to open their eyes. Parents know the difference between good schools and bad schools. All they need is the power to choose.
--Lewis C. Solmon is a Goldwater Institute Senior Fellow and former Dean of the Graduate School of Education at UCLA. His findings from the fourth annual Arizona Charter School Parent Satisfaction Survey will be published in December by the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.