The question of which public school you attend in the United States is typically settled by your address: where you live determines where you go. But in recent years, school-choice systems, which broaden the map of available schools and give families a menu of options, have become popular—and controversial.

Chicago Booth’s Christopher Campos and Instacart’s Caitlin Kearns (a recent graduate of Berkeley’s PhD program) analyzed a school-choice program in Los Angeles that gives families some choice of schools within a designated area. They find that expanding the options available to kids, mostly poor and Hispanic, helped close educational gaps among high-school students and led to better schools through competition.

With almost half a million students, the LA school district is the second largest in the US behind New York’s. Campos and Kearns used a peculiar feature of LA schools—the Zones of Choice program—to study the issue. Some places, such as Chicago and New York, give students the choice to apply to schools across the city. Los Angeles, however, instead set up highly localized zones and gave families the opportunity to apply to as many as five nearby high schools. Established in 2012, the program covers roughly 40 percent of the school district, while the remaining 60 percent continues to enroll high-school students on the basis of neighborhood boundaries.

Campos notes two features that distinguish ZOC from other school-choice programs. First, because ZOC schools are so localized, families can more easily learn about the quality of each one. In a larger market such as New York, where school choice is district-wide and families have access to hundreds of schools, few parents can review all of the options. As a result, most probably resort to simplified strategies for narrowing their selections, diluting the pressure on schools to improve their performance, he says.

Also, the zones are highly segregated and homogenous, which is likely by design. They emerged due to community pressure for access to better schools, particularly in the Pico Union neighborhood, where schools were overcrowded. In some other areas, people happier with the state of their neighborhood schools were less receptive to school choice. Nearly 90 percent of residents in the ZOCs studied were Hispanic—a 20 percent greater proportion than in nonzone areas—and 85 percent were classified as poor by the school district.

By comparing student outcomes before and after the program launched, the researchers inferred the value of student choice in the affected areas. They merged school-district data—including enrollment, student demographics, home addresses, and standardized test scores—between 2008 and 2019 with ZOC information from 2013 to 2020, including student placements and rank-ordered preference submissions for all applicants. They also observed college outcomes for students graduating between 2008 and 2019 using data from the National Student Clearinghouse, an educational nonprofit.

‘Zones’ made a difference

Students who attended a school under Los Angeles’s Zones of Choice program, which provides school choice within a geographic area, had higher test scores and college enrollment rates compared with students in other neighborhoods, according to the research.

“Kids graduating from ZOC neighborhoods before this policy was in place were, on average, performing more poorly and going to college at lower rates than their peers in non-ZOC neighborhoods,” Campos says. “If you fast-forward six years from when the policy takes hold, that achievement gap is no longer there, and neither is the gap in college enrollment.” The program raised four-year college enrollment by 25 percent, the researchers find. It had large positive effects on students’ performance in English and language arts, and students’ SAT scores also improved.

These effects, according to Campos and Kearns, resulted from schools themselves improving. The creation of a local market essentially put ZOC schools into competition to attract students, the researchers explain. In the district, enrollment numbers dictated resource allocation, which gave principals a powerful incentive to make sure they retained students within their schools’ original neighborhood boundaries plus attracted those newly able to consider the school. ZOC schools that were in the lower half of performance before the policy was implemented displayed the greatest improvement over the years, the researchers find.

Parent choices and preferences were important factors in the competition. Academic researchers on school choice have long assumed, with scant evidence, that parents reward good schools and punish bad ones. Using applications that parents filled out when the ZOC program was rolled out, Campos and Kearns find that parents did, indeed, place significant weight on the perceived quality of a school.

That said, “if we imported this policy as is to a place like New York City, or if we actually created zones that integrated across race or income, families may sort more carefully along variables besides school quality, dampening the effects,” Campos says.

“We show that ZOC has led to gains in student achievement and four-year college enrollment rates, both sufficiently large to close existing achievement and college enrollment gaps between ZOC students and other students in the district,” the researchers write, adding that “our findings reveal that neighborhood-based public school choice programs can elevate students’ educational outcomes.”

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