An average of forty-four million unique visitors use GreatSchools every year to check out schools in their area and elsewhere. A new study analyzes searches conducted on the website to learn whether changes in the local school choice environment are reflected in the information that parents seek about school quality.

Analysts link monthly search data in census-defined cities and towns to information on changes in six types of school choice policies: intra- and inter-open enrollment, tuition vouchers, tax credits for donations to private scholarship charities, tuition tax credits, and open enrollment for Title I schools specifically mandated by NCLB sanctions. The researchers analyze over one hundred million individual searches between January 2010, and October 2013; they combine those data with state-level measures of school choice policies that relate to the six areas above to see how changes in those policies relate to changes in search behavior on GreatSchools. They also examine how charter school openings and closings relate to online activity.

Their primary finding is that, for most policies, there’s an uptick in search frequency tied to increases in the prevalence of NCLB-induced choice (measured as when schools receiving Title I funds fail to meet annual yearly progress for two consecutive years and must offer the option of students transferring out to another non-failing local school). In other words, when parents learn that their kids have a choice, they go searching for information about those choices. Specifically, a 10 percentage-point increase in NCLB-choice-based eligibility increases the number of searches by 7.2 percent. They find similar patterns for intra- and inter-district open enrollment (specifically, when these policies are put in place by state law allowing or mandating them), and private school tuition vouchers. But there are small to negligible relationships between search frequency and changes in tuition tax credits or charitable tax credits, perhaps because parents are less likely to understand how these options might benefit their child, or because GreatSchools has less information on private schools. They also find a strong relationship between charter school openings and searches; specifically, adding one more charter school to an area is associated with a 5 percent increase in online search activity.

In short, creating more school options appears to drive demand for information. Availability of data is essential—but a parent needs a reason to hunt down and use such information.

SOURCE: Michael F. Lovenheim and Patrick Walsh, “Does Choice Increase Information? Evidence from Online School Search Behavior,” NBER (May 2017).

Policy Priority:

Amber Northern is senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she supervises the Institute’s studies and research staff.  She has published in the areas of educational accountability, principal leadership, teacher quality, and academic standards, among others. Prior to joining Fordham, she served as senior study director at Westat. In that role, she provided evaluation services…

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