School Choice Architecture
12 Pages Posted: 30 Jul 2021
Date Written: December 1, 2015
Scholars have focused extensively on how “choice architecture” impacts policy. Their key insight is that by changing how choices are presented, policymakers can “nudge” people toward better decisions. To date, though, this framework has not been applied to a decision-making institution at the core of American education: school choice.
American cities once assigned students to schools through the “neighborhood school” model: absent special circumstances, parents would enroll their children in the school closest to their home. In recent years, however, cities from New York to New Orleans have embraced “school choice,” a model that allows families to choose from a vast menu of public schools, charter schools, and other options no matter where in the city they live.
The process by which families select schools creates important choice-architectural opportunities for policymakers to help parents make the best decisions possible. Cities, however, have not seized them. Instead, even in the most “choice friendly” districts, parents pick schools from spare, alphabetically sorted ballots of options. These options, often numbering in the dozens, can seem overwhelming and indistinguishable, especially for those families with the fewest resources. As a result, school choice is often an uninformed choice, thus failing to realize its potential to improve urban education.
In response, this Comment offers five behavioral-economic “fixes” to improve the school selection process at the heart of school choice: (1) default rules favoring high-performing schools; (2) enrollment ballots arranged by quality, not alphabetically; (3) ballot disclaimers next to substandard school options; (4) “box scores” with high salience information next to each ballot option; and (5) computerized selection assistance. Combined, these fixes offer crucial benefits for urban school choice.
Keywords: School Choice, Education Policy, Education Law, Urban Law, Choice Architecture, Education Reform
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