How Do Parents Choose Schools? Evidence from Choices and a Survey of Choosers
Understanding how families choose schools is critical for understanding the effects of school choice, patterns of school and residential segregation, and socially optimal policies relating to student assignment and the supply of schools and programs. Gaining this understanding has been challenging for at least three reasons. First, it is difficult to separate the role of preferences from that of beliefs when examining the observed relationship between choices and measured school attributes. Second, administrative datasets generally contain limited information about non-academic outcomes such as safety and social wellbeing, which might matter greatly to school choices. Third, lacking data on parents' beliefs about their children’s outcomes, researchers have been unable to test a leading hypothesis for why parents are observed to choose schools that enroll a more ``favorable" composition of peers: because they believe that their children will enjoy better outcomes at those schools. This paper addresses these challenges by linking administrative data on school choices made by families of students enrolled in a mid-size urban school district with survey data on their beliefs about school attributes and subjective expectations about schools' impacts on their children's academic and non-academic outcomes. Three key findings emerge from our analyses. First, parents think that schools matter for their children's outcomes, but schools perceived to improve academic outcomes are not necessarily those perceived to improve non-academic outcomes. Second, while parents strongly prefer schools that they think will generate good academic outcomes, if anything, the non-academic outcomes for which we elicit beliefs matter even more. Third, parents' beliefs about these outcomes are strongly related to their perception of student composition at a school, a finding that also emerges from a policy “vignette experiment” and that we therefore interpret as causal.