Honors Thesis Spotlight: Perception of Charter Schools: A Study of Latinx Parents’ Engagement in School Choice

This pilot investigation studies the priorities, perceptions, and tactics of Latinx and Hispanic parents in Miami-Dade County as they navigate the school choice marketplace through interviews with nine parents of school-aged children about their experiences regarding the school choice system.

The research questions for this project were as follows:

  • 􏰘  What considerations do Latinx parents take into account when engaging in the school choice marketplace?
  • 􏰘  What perception of the school choice marketplace do Latinx parents hold, how did they come to that perception, and how has it shaped their school choice process?

To explore these questions, the researcher interviewed Latinx parents in Miami-Dade County, with children enrolled in traditional public schools, magnet schools, charter schools, and private schools. The interviews were structured to learn why parents made certain school choices and what perceptions they have of the education system that led them to those choices. As well as where these perceptions came from—family, friends, neighbors, church, media, schools, or the district. Existing research focuses on how parents make choices, but not on where they get their information or what those information sources are trying to communicate. The model of the school choice marketplace was useful here—in order to understand the racial/ethnic composition of charter schools, we need to attend to both the choices parents make as educational “consumers” and how charter schools market themselves to parent consumers, and whether those messages are reinforced or contradicted by the district.

This research expands on work done by others to understand how minority groups in general and specifically Latinx and Hispanic families engage differently from white families. Even though solidly in the middle class, the parents relied on strong ties to family and close family friends to both gather information to choose a school and as a way to provide many of the traits they felt were part of a quality school such as community, small size, and help coping with transportation and scheduling challenges. Parents also sought out dual-language programs for both academic and cultural reasons but were often disappointed in the difficulty of accessing these limited programs. Additional themes found likely to apply to families in other demographics as well. These include: not believing that the school choice system is truly impartial; frustration with the difficulty of accessing highly sought after public charter and magnet schools; and using private schools, especially in early education, to gain advantage in accessing prestigious public programs.

The themes emerging in these conversations with parents suggests that for even the most economically advantaged, education is a significant concern and a burden. Miami-Dade has more charter, magnet and private school options than most places in the US. This suggests that parents who wanted it would have more access to quality programs, but these accounts don’t bear that out. The number of people opting-out of the public school system for private institutions shows there may be a serious problem. If the purpose of school choice is, as advocates say, to give every student the opportunity to access a quality education and excel, then these narratives should be worrisome. Within the population of Latinx and Hispanic families I researched there are, like in every other cultural group, those who are struggling to obtain access to the resources many take for granted and there are those with privilege who take those resources for granted. If one of the purposes of the school choice system is to help level that inequality, the existing system does not seem to be achieving that goal.

Raymond Myers is a sociology student at Florida State University, and a winner of the Bess H. Ward thesis Award. You can learn more about this project here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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