Complicating choice : nuanced portrayals of parental choice decisions
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School choice has become a policy solution for families and children attending persistently low performing schools for the past 40 years. Since 1960, choice programs have been expanded with the principal goal of providing opportunities to families and children to attend schools that better align with the families’ educational goals. The prevalent school choice literature assumes parents to be rational actors and rigidly defines rational decision-making as parents choosing schools with higher academic outcomes, rather than remaining in their low performing neighborhood school. There are, however, parents who chose to keep their child(ren) in their low performing neighborhood school despite the availability of other options. This study sought to investigate the factors influencing parents to keep their children enrolled in low performing schools despite the availability of other school choice options. Structuration theory was used as the primary conceptual framework as it allows for consideration of individual agency and social and cultural experiences in shaping decisions. Six in-depth interviews were conducted with parents and staff members at a high school in Houston to investigate this phenomenon. Findings from the study reveal that parents were not passive bystanders in their child’s education; all four parents had made unsuccessful attempts at school choice prior to enrolling their children in the target high school (HS1) and parents kept their children enrolled at HS1 because they were satisfied with other programs at the school. There were, however, academic trade-offs that parents had to make as a result of the constrained set choices available in their community. Faced with relatively limited options as a result of their context, these parents became invested in the option they chose and then left it up to their children to succeed. School choice, therefore, requires parents to take responsibility for any failure. Since they chose a low performing school, parents and children became responsible for failed choice and the larger inequities were not interrogated by anyone. School choice, within of itself, offers little value to communities if the school choice options themselves are not meaningful.