Market Signals: A Deep-Dive Analysis of Parental School Choice in Washington, DC

Prepared For

The Walton Family Foundation

More school choice usually means more competition between schools. But whether that competition leads to good or bad outcomes depends on how parents are choosing their schools.

To understand more fully what parents look for when they choose a school, researchers analyzed data from the 2014 school lottery in Washington, DC. For the lottery, families submitted rank-ordered lists of their preferred schools from a long list of options, including charter schools and traditional public schools. These parent-submitted rankings provide a powerful “market signal” about what school attributes are in greatest demand. 

According to the analysis, parents generally prefer schools close to home and place significant weight on the academic performance of the school and the characteristics of its students, including their race and income. These factors vary somewhat across parents, with notable differences by parents’ race/ethnicity and income.

For education administrators and policymakers, this type of data analysis could be used to better understand how to design rules and policies governing school choice. Policies based on the data could even “nudge” parents toward choices that produce good outcomes, such as better academic performance; more disadvantaged students enrolling in high quality schools; and more integration of schools by race, ethnicity, and social class.

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