All four sectors in K–12 education compete for the support of their customers—that is, the parents of their prospective students. Those parents have more choices today than in decades past: they may send their children to the public school automatically assigned to them by their school district, or opt for a private school, charter school, or district-run school of choice. These choices include a range of cost and convenience—and, not surprisingly, a range of customer satisfaction levels.
The assigned-school-district sector has a strong competitive advantage because assigned-district schools are free and universally available, and 76 percent of American students attend them, according to a 2012 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), part of the U.S. Department of Education. The three choice sectors do not enjoy those advantages and enroll fewer students: 10 percent of U.S. students attend private schools, 9 percent attend district schools of choice, and 6 percent attend charters, according to NCES. The private sector has a strong disadvantage because most families must pay tuition. The charter sector has the advantage of its programs being tuition-free but is limited to operating in specific places where charters have been approved by a state-determined authorizer. Similarly, district schools of choice also are tuition-free but cannot operate in competition with assigned-district schools unless school boards specifically allow them.
To maintain and enlarge their market share, all schools of choice must satisfy the families who make use of them, who specifically opt out of the free, more convenient assigned-district alternative. So how favorably do parents rate their children’s programs? How do the choice sectors compare with one another? With which aspects of schooling are choice parents most satisfied? Do these patterns vary across different segments of the population? We explore these questions by comparing parental satisfaction ratings for all four sectors: assigned-district schools, private schools, charter schools, and district schools of choice.