Families are willing to go the extra mile for a great school

Although ardent school choice supporters often argue that having options is an end in itself, the more pragmatic among us recognize that important real-life factors must be considered when describing the health of an area’s school choice landscape. Improvements in information dissemination and simplification of enrollment processes are making a difference in many cities, but a continuing obstacle is transportation. Even the best possible school option might as well not exist if a family cannot reach it. New research from the Urban Institute tries to identify the calculus that families must make in their efforts to secure the best possible fit.

Researchers Patrick Denice and Betheny Gross use data from Denver Public Schools, a portfolio system that includes traditional district schools, independent but district-run innovation schools, and charter schools. All Denver students are guaranteed a spot in a specific school or cluster of schools, but are free to apply to schools of any type for which they are eligible and they do so via a centralized application. School assignments are generally determined by lottery. As befits a system with this much choice and a simplified single application system, more than 80 percent of Denver students in typical transition years (e.g., entering kindergarten or moving from fifth to sixth grade) submit school choice applications. Noting that most students applying to high school do not apply to the school closest to where they live—the first choice is typically the fourth-closest school—Denice and Gross focus on students entering ninth grade to examine the trade-offs made in pursuit of this important choice.

Their study examined all rising ninth graders at the start of the 2014–15 school year who submitted a school choice application—a total of 3,100 students. The researchers used district data to determine all of the possible schools available to those students for that year (by application and by guarantee), used Google Maps to calculate the distance and time it would take students to travel via transit or car from their homes to all options, and then compared the results to their first choice school. It is important to note that this analysis was not based on the schools that students actually ended up attending, but only those they requested first on their list (students can request up to five ranked options), and that schools “bypassed” refers to any school that is closer than the first choice in any direction of travel. Half of the students’ first choice schools required less than a ten-minute drive each way, but the range was large—from almost zero to more than fifty minutes. The city’s median black student sought schools the furthest from home at nearly fifteen minutes one way. Overall, the median student bypassed four nearer available schools in selecting their first choice school; the median black student bypassed seven.

Wanting to know what motivated students to bypass certain schools and to subject themselves to longer travel time to attend their first choice school, Denice and Gross focus on a group of students they call “super travelers.” Super travelers fall into the top quartile of the sample in terms of travel time or the number of available schools they bypassed if they were assigned to their first choice. A surprisingly large 31 percent of students (nearly 1,000 total) fit the criteria. Super travelers would spend, on average, 21 minutes to reach their final choice school. While that may not sound like much on paper, keep in mind that travel time is one way and does not here include real world traffic considerations such as congestion, construction, or weather. Additionally, it does not consider parents transporting multiple children to multiple schools and the requirements of parents’ employment or the cost of wear-and-tear on vehicles. More importantly to the foregoing, the number of closer available schools to the average super traveler was a whopping 16.8 due to co-location of smaller “schools” within several given high school buildings.

Denver’s notoriously tricky geography, with a number of historically isolated neighborhoods, did not appear to influence super travelers’ choices, with a reasonably even distribution of super travelers originating from all of the city’s defined sectors. As a result, the researchers focused on what the students would be traveling for—the differences between far-away first-choice schools and those that are nearer but bypassed. They began by comparing characteristics of the schools nearest to super travelers’ homes to their first choice schools. They found that students favored schools with higher academic quality (as measured by ACT scores and graduation rates), lower discipline rates, and richer academic and extracurricular offerings (as measured by availability of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, Calculus, dual-language and immersion options, sports offerings, project-based learning, and music, drama, and visual arts). Families opting for quality should be music to the ears of school choice supporters. But travel distance remains an issue. Studies show that long commutes are associated with large costs in terms of time, money, lost opportunities, neighborhood social ties, and potentially traveling to or through unsafe areas. Not to mention unreliable transportation which could lead to dropping out.

But what about all the schools bypassed by super travelers? Unfortunately, the data indicated that only 22 percent of Denver’s super travelers could find another comparable choice nearer their homes, and even those would lessen their commute time by only a few minutes. Again, there is no indication here which additional schools students requested other than their top choice, nor which schools they ultimately attended. This limits the conclusions that can be made but does provide important descriptive information about what students and families are willing to do to attend the school that they want. Looking at the data, Denice and Gross noted that other nearer choices were available if certain parts of the quality criteria were relaxed, but the onus should not be on parents to compromise. It should be on school systems offering choice to think more holistically about their offerings, as it seems most families do.

Diversifying and improving the “package” of academics, culture, and extracurriculars and focusing on those school characteristics most in demand would go a long way to helping more students find the best fit. And transportation options—whether it be a school or city bus—that address the reality of families’ travel requirements wouldn’t hurt either.

SOURCE: Patrick Denice and Betheny Gross, “Going the Distance: Understand the Benefits of a Long Commute to School,” Urban Institute (October 2018).

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,