The Houston Independent School District, the largest school district in the state, "prides itself on its many and varied school choice options for students," according to its site. In addition to a student's so-called neighborhood school, or zoned school, the district has magnet programs, charter schools and other options that allow a student to attend a non-zoned school.
These options are offered in the name of equity, in fact federal funding for magnet schools was explicitly tied to desegregation efforts. The first magnet programs in HISD were created in response to a court order to desegregate. Today, with more than 100 magnet schools across the district, some have questioned whether school choice benefits the most disadvantaged students.
In a study from the Houston Education Research Consortium, researchers found that, in HISD, current English language learners were significantly less likely than their peers to attend non-zoned schools. The pattern did not hold, however, for former English language learners who were just as likely to attend non-zoned schools as students who had never been classified as English language learners.
"There are a couple of different explanations we offer," said Madeline Mavrogordato, of Michigan State University, co-author of the study with Julie Harris, "but one that comes to mind fastest is language; these parents have a language barrier and learning about schools and gathering the necessary information they would need to inform choosing a non-zoned school for their child is just more difficult for these parents."
Roughly 30 percent of the students in HISD are considered English language learners, according to 2016 data from the Texas Education Agency. And the district has taken steps to reach out to families who might not speak English. Information about the school choice program is offered in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Arabic and the district also hosts open house fairs to answer parent questions about the process.
Still, said Mavrogordato, the results, which used data from the 2011-2012 school year and prior years, signal a significant gap. Only roughly 33 percent of current English language learner elementary students were enrolled in a non-zoned school versus roughly 46 percent for both former English language learner and never English language learner elementary students. Similarly, in middle school, only 34 percent of current English language learners attended non-zoned schools compared to 54 percent and 52 percent of former English language learners and never English language learners respectively. In high school, the gaps were even larger: only 18 percent of English language learners attended non-zoned schools versus 43 percent and 45 percent of former English language learners and never English language learners.
The vast majority of English language learners were Latino, according to the researchers, as well as being eligible for free and reduced lunch, a measure of socioeconomic disadvantage.
"There’s also an issue of cultural familiarity or cultural literacy," added Mavrogordato, "meaning that in the U.S., this idea of school choice is pretty well-known and has been underway for quite some time in various forms. But for parents who are immigrants from other places, that may be a completely foreign concept."
But clearly, students who were once considered limited in English but are later determined to be proficient, demonstrate that it's not a homogenous experience. "Once kids have been reclassified and they are former English learners it means they’ve hit specific academic thresholds and it could be that they are more likely to choose than current English learners because they can compete for these academically competitive magnet programs for example," said Mavrogordato.
As the population of English language learners increases in public schools across the country, reaching them and their families is critically important, she said.
"We need to look at who school choice is actually serving," said Mavrogordato. "We need to figure out how to better reach those kids."