The jig is up, fellow parents. As much as we say that academics are of utmost importance when it comes to choosing schools for our kids, a new study has found that what parents say is not always we they do when given a choice. And in fact, academics may actually be less of a priority for parents than we thought.

In an ideal world, parents would send their kids to the schools with the strongest academic programs. In most of the country, parents don't have that choice when it comes to public schools. They have to send their kids to the schools zoned for the area where they live. But one area of the country is unique in that the vast majority of parents have a charter school option that allows parents to choose whichever public school they want. In New Orleans, nine out of 10 students attend charter schools, making public school choice the norm rather than the rarity.

Given all of this choice, one might think that the seams would be busting at the schools with the strongest academic records, forcing the other schools to improve or close their doors. But as it turns out, a new study from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans shows that parents actually place other factors — such as location or extracurriculars — above academics when it comes to picking a school.

For the study, researchers analyzed student enrollment records over the last decade to get a better idea of what parents were really looking for in their children's schools. They found that while parents certainly seemed to care about academics, it wasn't as high of a priority as other factors such as location, extracurricular activities and extended hours. Location was actually a bigger factor than the researchers would have guessed. In fact, they found that parents consistently sent their kids to schools with a poorer academic record if it was closer to where they lived. Parents of younger kids showed a preference for schools that had before- or after-school programs that allowed them to drop off their kids early or pick them up late. And parents of high school-aged kids give higher preference to schools with extracurriculars such as band or football than schools with better academic programs. 

Most importantly — and surprisingly — the researchers found that parents in the lowest income bracket were the least likely to choose schools based on academics and the most likely to select schools based on location, hours and extracurriculars. This is important because it flies in the face of the whole charter-school premise that lets parents choose a school based on academics rather than be forced to send their kids to a school based on their address.

All this information brings up some very interesting questions. For starters, is the situation in New Orleans representative of the rest of the country? Maybe. But New Orleans' high poverty rate might sway factors in either direction. Researchers couldn't be sure that parents in low-income families had access to all of the information they might need to make an informed choice when it came to schools. Or it could be that work schedules and/or childcare options force lower-income families to choose schools based on factors other than academics. 

One thing is for certain. New Orleans is a unique case study in that the choices offered to parents allows researchers to understand what parents really want — and need — when it comes to choosing schools for their kids. And it does not all boil down to test scores.

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