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National Polling Echoes the Partnership’s Experience: Families Are Seeking School Choices

Earlier this month, more than half of parents polled said they had considered or were considering a new school for their students in the last year. This finding resonates with us at Partnership Schools for a number of reasons.

First, it sounds familiar; we’ve met many parents considering new schools in the last two years. Our New York schools experienced a 14.5 percent increase in enrollment this year, and our Cleveland schools maintained the momentum of an astounding forty percent increase from last year, many of them transferring from other school sectors. As our teachers reflected in this Post on their classroom routines, incorporating an influx of new students from different school cultures and academic approaches has been one of the most notable aspects of our work this fall.

Thus, while schools and advocates nationwide observe National School Choice Week next week, the fact that parents are choosers of schools is a reality we live every day at Partnership Schools.

Second, the poll results suggests that “Black and Hispanic parents are searching for schools in higher percentages than white parents.” Again, this is not a surprise to us. Our nine schools have provided an option for parents in overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods for decades, and Partnership Schools came into existence nine years ago to keep that option available for decades to come.

While we aren’t surprised by this quest for options, we remain indignant that some American parents have fewer or poorer choices than others. Too many families are limited in choices by their incomes, the boundaries of their school districts, or the regulatory structures of the states they live in. Our families in New York, for instance, have fewer options than our families in Cleveland do; New York statutes cap the number of charter schools, and because New York denies families access to tax credit scholarships, the state allows wealthy families greater school choice than those of modest means.

One consequence of New York’s constriction of school choice can be seen in two numbers: there are currently three students applying for every one charter seat in the Bronx, and two in Manhattan. Yet despite these limitations on their choices, families are finding a way, even when their incomes make it difficult: the number of free-and-reduced-price lunch-(FRPL)-eligible students our New York Partnership schools serve shot up this year by eleven percentage points, to 79 percent of our total enrollment. That means families who strive each week for food security nevertheless willingly added the burden of school tuition to their expenses this year. Our network’s supporters strive to keep those parent payments low, but we never take for granted the sacrifices parents still make to send their children to our schools. Thus, while this month’s polling can suggest the breadth of interest in school choice, it is perhaps data like our FRPL increase that can better gauge the intensity of parents’ willingness to make the choice of schools they think are right for their children.

Finally, while 52% of parents either considered or are considering a change of school for their children, twenty percent did not change schools. This, in turn, raises two points for schools of choice like ours:

  • Parents’ choice of our schools is one we need to continue earning, even after families join us.
  • While the polling indicates that almost half of families who considered a different school choice remained where they were, it didn’t address why. At Partnership Schools, we know at least a few reasons: barriers to entry–like those tuition payments–remain for many families who want private or faith-based schools for their children. While we made significant progress in lowering those barriers–as we outlined in our plan last year—we must continue to raise the scholarship funding, spread the word, and reduce the bureaucracy needed to help families obtain equitable choices.

By their very structure, Catholic schools are dependent on parents’ choices to remain open, so we are highly motivated to prioritize meeting families’ needs, as we did last year when most Catholic schools opened in person from day 1, while others remained only remote. Those needs extend beyond simply being open, and they continue to evolve. This structural motivation driving Catholic schools evolve or close is one we discuss often at the Partnership as a healthy fear of closure.

Our fear of closure is not an abstraction, as the recent news of more historically Black Catholic schools closing indicates. Those closures—particularly in states like Louisiana, where school choice programs have been an option for several years—remind us that robust, publicly funded school choice is necessary, but not sufficient; it must be accompanied by game-changing philanthropic investment and innovative management models, like the Partnership’s and others, in order for Catholic schools to continue delivering on the promises of school choice in neighborhoods increasingly seeking it out.

Still, it is heartening to glimpse national data that confirms what our Partnership school communities know: families are seeking school options. It motivates us to keep providing high-quality support so that our schools remain compelling choices for families. We hope it inspires even more advocates of families–particularly advocates for families of color—to work creatively to dismantle the policy barriers to equitable choice that remain.