Choice-based reforms, such as vouchers and charter schools, depend on the idea that schools will have to satisfy parents to keep their customers. Thus the wisdom of choice-based reforms depends on what parents want. If parents place a high priority on academics, then schools with strong academic programs will do well under school choice. If parents want their children to learn disciplined work habits, then schools that teach such habits will thrive under school choice. If parents choose schools based on their sports programs, then schools emphasizing sports will succeed. In short, the question "What would parents look for in schools?" is central to the debate on school choice.
One way to answer this question is to survey parents. When surveyed, parents overwhelmingly say that their first priority is learning, especially in core areas: reading, writing, mathematics, science, and history. Parents also say that they want schools to uphold standards of hard work, honesty, courtesy, and responsibility. Although parents do not ignore extracurricular activities such as sports, they give them little weight compared to academics and standards of behavior.
Many people in the education establishment are skeptical of parent surveys, saying that parents who do not care about academics are embarrassed to say so. They point out that it is not enough for parents to say that they want high standards for academics and behavior. What matters, they say, is how parents respond when their children get bad grades or face the consequences of breaking school rules.
Another way to find out what parents want is to see what sorts of charter schools they choose. Most of the 1,700 charter schools in the nation emphasize academics, although their approach varies from back to basics to high technology. Charter schools also strive to create students who are upstanding human beings. No known charter schools so far have academics taking a back seat to sports.
The same people who are skeptical of parent surveys, however, are skeptical of evidence based on charter schools. The movement is still in its infancy, they say, and today's charter school parents are atypical.
So the toughest test of what parents want may be in areas where it is easy for parents to choose a school because there are so many public school districts. In some medium-sized metropolitan areas, such as Boston, there are more than one hundred school districts. In such areas the schools have had a long time to reflect parents' preferences, and one does not have to take parents' word about what they want. It turns out that the average school in such metropolitan areas is more academically oriented and sets higher standards for homework and in-school behavior. It does not place greater emphasis on sports or extracurricular activities.
In short, the evidence suggests that parents ought to be believed when they say what they want. If parents' preferences are given greater sway, they may well trigger higher standards for academics and behavior.