Recent reports suggest that the vast majority (up to 97%) of parents with children in “failing” schools choose to leave their children in those schools, even when it is their legal right to do otherwise. These reports -- and the puzzling behavior they describe -- draw attention to researchers’ limited ability to explain parents’ actions. This study addresses this limitation by investigating the “black box” of choice -- the processes parents use to choose. Based on interviews with 48 urban parents during the eight months preceding the selection of a middle or high school, the study finds that differences in the choice process did not explain why parents chose failing schools. Instead, differences in choice sets explain, in part, why parents choose the schools they do.
Using social networks, customary attendance patterns, and their understanding of their child’s academic achievement, parents constructed choice sets that varied systematically by social-class background. The differences between parents’ choice sets were statistically significant and provide insight into why it makes sense that well-intentioned parents choose failing schools. The study’s findings elaborate our understanding of the choice process and, in so doing, raise concerns about the ability of current choice policies to deliver the equity outcomes reformers suggest.