What good is it to offer an abundance of school options if parents don’t know about them?

It may have been heartening this week to see voters in New Jersey and Douglas County, Colorado, elect local and statewide candidates who have campaigned on the need to change the landscape of public education in a way that maximizes school choice. But the reality is that most families who could benefit from these options have no idea they exist. And that is what’s holding back the momentum of the school-choice movement.

Far too many school-choice advocates are still going door to door to promote charter schools, school vouchers, and the like, or they’re putting up billboards and running radio ads to reach their audience. I recently had the pleasure of leading a discussion on marketing school choice at the annual conference of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in San Diego, and I was blessed the insight of leading school-choice advocates who shared their work in the trenches. But it’s clear that the choice movement relies mostly on old-school marketing efforts when what we need is new-school sophistication.

Running billboard and radio ads and going door to door helps, but it’s not enough. Families need more independent information to make good choices, but there are few institutionalized avenues for parents to explore all their options.

To that end, I propose the following to align with the spread of public and private school options:

Common applications

Districts such as those in New Orleans have turned to a common application (known in Nola as OneApp) to help cut through the fog of school choice. No “one-stop-shopping” effort can give parents everything they might want to know, but OneApp comes close, at least by delivering critical school information. The problem is, not all publicly funded options want to participate (particularly private schools accepting voucher-bearing students), and not enough school districts have opted to start their own common-application process. That’s a drawback for parents, and that ought to be reason alone to stop the foot-dragging.

A public school–information authority

States have economic-development authorities, which are quasi-public institutions aimed at jumpstarting business and enterprise. With charters, virtual schools, and voucher-redeeming private schools capturing more of the public school market share, why not adopt this approach for disseminating information on school choices? This would provide the public commitment necessary to assure that all families who do qualify or have access to education alternatives know they have this power. Scholars Thomas Stewart and Patrick Wolf suggested such an approach in their chapter in the 2011 book Customized Schooling, edited by Rick Hess and Bruno Manno: “It is essential that every child have at least one adult in their life who can help them navigate the pre-K12 education system,” Stewart and Wolf write. “In cases where children do not have someone who meets this criterion, interested stakeholders should make additional support services like education advocates or family education coaches available to families that need them. At the macro level, this might include establishing an independent education oversight body that would make information about schools and other education options more accessible and user friendly.”

A doubling down by GreatSchools and other information sites

GreatSchools.org has access to copious amounts of information on public schools that is meant to be consumed by the general public, but it can’t do everything by itself. Other entrepreneurs should find ways of getting into the information business, and states should create the conditions to help them. Establishing an information authority such as the one proposed above is a good place to start.

None of these alone, or even combined, will guarantee 100 percent penetration. But they’ll do a better job than what we have now: lots of school choices, and so little knowledge about them.

Policy Priority:

Adam Emerson is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s school choice czar, directing the Institute’s policy program on parental choice and editing the Choice Words blog. He coordinates the Institute’s school choice-related research projects, policy analyses and commentaries on issues that include charter schools and public school choice along with school vouchers, homeschooling and digital learning. Previously…

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