A Lever for More Equitable Access to Schools? Evidence from San Francisco

Do school choice plans that prioritize families in underserved neighborhoods reduce educational inequality for low-income students and students of color?

Clark and colleagues will conduct a mixed-methods study in partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) to examine whether the district’s choice-based student assignment approach reduces inequality in educational attainment for low-income students and students of color. More than half of urban school districts across the country use choice-based student assignment plans to equalize access to oversubscribed schools that are assumed to be both highly effective and capable of reducing inequality in educational attainment. SFUSD gives priority at oversubscribed schools to students from neighborhoods with schools with lower academic performance. To evaluate whether the equity priority impacts choices, assignments, and outcomes, the team will use a regression discontinuity design that compares families on either side of the borders around the neighborhoods eligible for the equity priority. To understand why the equity priority changes or does not change choices and assignments, the team will field a survey to shed light on parents’ preferences about school attributes, their beliefs about SFUSD schools, and understanding of the school assignment process. To provide insights about ways districts can reduce barriers to access, the team will conduct semi-structured interviews with a subset of the surveyed parents. Findings will inform SFUSD discussions about possible reforms as well as policy discussions across the U.S. about how to design programs to ensure more equitable access to effective schools.