Saturday’s Dropout Nation Watch video on the D.C. Opportunity school choice program led Kwame M. Brown of education consultancy Move Theory to ask why do I continue to support school choice. Basing his argument on critics of choice such as Diane Ravitch (who dedicates much of her recent claptrap, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, to arguing against choice), Brown asks why support school choice when there is evidence that families won’t choose anything other than local schools.

Given the fact that the most of the studies about parents and their choices of neighborhood versus out-of-neighborhood schools are  fairly old (even the most-recent studies on this matter are about three years old), the reality is that it is hard to opponents of choice to argue that parents don’t want choice and won’t choose schools outside of their neighborhoods when given the opportunity. More importantly, such an argument ignores the realities of supply and access that complicate the ability of parents to actually make choices.

If you want to know whether parents will choose schools outside their communities, the simplest way is to look at the enrollment of districts with robust school choice options. In Washington, D.C., charter schools accounted for just 5 percent of overall public school enrollment in 1998-1999; this year, it accounts for 39 percent of all students enrolled in public schools. During that same period, D.C. Public Schools enrollment declined from 71,889 students to 45,630. (This number doesn’t include the 1,700 kids who took advantage of the now-shuttered D.C. Opportunity voucher program, which was targeted only to students attending the worst of the District’s dropout factories.) There is also Detroit, where charter schools now account for 32 percent of enrollment in 2010, contributing to the decline in enrollment in the traditional district; or look at New York City, where charter school enrollment increased by 41  percent in the past. (I would also point to New Orleans, where charters now account for 62 percent of  public school enrollment; but one must also note that the circumstances by which choice came into being — the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — means that it isn’t as good an example to use in these circumstances).

Then there is Boston, where pilot schools (which are essentially charter schools) have also proven to be a popular option. As Monique Ouimette and Rosann Tung pointed out in their 2008 study on choice in Boston’s school district, 27 percent of parents exercising choice in the school system made pilots their first choice (unfortunately, the pilots only accounted for 11 percent of enrollment in the district, pointing to one of the obstacles to choice upon which I will later elaborate). Pilots were the choice of 36 percent of families with eighth-graders heading into freshmen year of high school.

I can actually go on and on, but the point is clear: If parents are given a robust array of school choices (that is, a wide supply of schools outside of the neighborhood school including charters, private school options through vouchers and even intra-district choice) and access to high-quality information about those options, they are quite likely to choose an option other than the traditional neighborhood school. This doesn’t mean they will always make the right choice (although as a Rand Corp. study of the school choice options used under the No Child Left Behind Act in seven districts argues otherwise). Nor does it mean that they don’t generally prefer to send their kid to a school within their neighborhood; as a team led by Brett Kleitz pointed out in a 2000 study on school choice in Texas, location was the number three concern for parents of all racial, ethnic and income backgrounds (after education quality and safety). Poor parents, in particular, have to balance school quality concerns with the ability to get their kids to and from school. And there are issue when it comes to quality of school options.

What it means is that parents are willing to use choice when given the opportunity to do so. That is clear. But in asking his question, Dr. Brown did hit on some issues that Ravitch and other opponents of choice (and even some of its supporters) tend to ignore.

The first? That parents can’t exercise school choice properly if they don’t have enough data on the options available. Once a family knows what their choices are, they are more than likely to make the right ones. But they need data and other information resources in the first place. While state and district school data systems have become more-robust, they still don’t provide data with the kind of easy-to-understand information on school performance parents need to make smart decisions. The compliance mentality that still dominates traditional public education also means that sources of data that could be used for decisions are not available to parents (or to anyone else) in useful ways. And in the case of intra-district choice options, school districts don’t usually have the capability (or in many cases, the political desire) to fully inform parents about their school choice options.

As Dropout Nation has pointed out ad nauseam, it is critical for school reformers to push for improving school data systems and for creating grassroots nonprofits that can help inform parents and guide them in respectful ways on making high-quality decisions. The expansion of Parent Power groups, along with the passage of Parent Trigger laws will also help spur choice; such groups can help inform other parents about how to make smart decisions, while Parent Trigger laws would actually give parents the power to make decisions about whether to invest time in overhauling neighborhoods or seek other options. (By the way: It is also critical to deal with the school transportation factor; following the example of Indianapolis, which requires charter schools to provide transportation for every student who can’t just walk to their buildings, would go a long way towards easing the transportation factor.)

The other factor, which Ravitch and others tend to gloss over is that at this time, school choice is hardly robust. As Jim Guthrie, who now serves as a scholar at the George W. Bush Center, points out, just a fifth of the nation’s families can avail themselves of some kind of school choice. What exists for those families is still limited. Voucher programs exist in only a smattering of cities and are generally targeted only to either kids coming from the poorest families, kids in special education programs (Florida’s McKay vouchers, for example) or to families with kids attending the nation’s dropout factories.

The Race to the Top initiative is helping to expand the reach of charter schools. But currently, charters still account for five percent of all enrollment; and in many states, the growth of charters is still limited by caps on the number of charters that can be opened. In many states, charters cannot be opened without the approval of the traditional school district; given that those districts — especially those in suburbia — don’t want any competition for students (and the tax dollars they generate), there are still artificial limits on choice. This is why only one-fifth of charters are in suburbia — and why families living in suburban areas outside of robust choice cities such as D.C. often have far less supply of (and diversity in) school options.

Choices within districts, both through magnet schools and through the school choice options required by the No Child Left Behind Act, are also limiting. Magnet schools, the most-basic form of intra-district choice, accounted for only 1.8 of the nation’s 96,513 public schools in 2004-2005 (the most-recent data available). Even in those magnet schools, school districts attempted to control choice by pushing for socioeconomic diversity, which meant a limiting of options for all students; and thanks to the politics of districts, middle-class parents still ended up with their pick of the proverbial litter. Poor and minority families still get left out.

No Child’s intra-district choice option — which requires districts to inform parents of kids in “Need of Improvement” schools with information about the failure of the current school and the school options available to get kids out of them — has also been a failure, with less than 1 percent of families who can use the option actually doing so. Why? The reasons are mostly systemic. For one, many districts do not inform parents about their options until June. This is not enough time for families to research their options. There is also the fact that under No Child, the school (or more importantly, the district) can reject the family’s choice; a district can argue that a better-quality school doesn’t have enough seats to accommodate new students. Even if a family has the wherewithal to make a choice, districts can be the very barrier to making the exercise of options a reality.

The reality is families can only exercise choice when they have it. They can only exercise it properly when they have high-quality data (and guidance) available to make smart decisions. Their choice may be to have a high-quality school in their own neighborhoods — and they deserve that. Which is why we must continue to systemically reform American public education and move to a model in which we fund the highest-quality school opportunities for all children, no matter where they live. Nor is choice a panacea; again, it is why we must reform teacher quality, curriculum, school leadership and education finance.

But it is critical to offer these families the ability to choose the best schools for their children. If you believe that education is the most-critical civil rights issue of our time, you can’t support denying families the ability to escape dropout factories and failure mills. If you believe that education is a consumer good that requires the ability of parents to make choices, then you also can’t support denying choice. And if you want to spur reform, it is critical to give families the ability to move their kids out of cultures of academic failure and into cultures of genius.

Let’s be clear: The systemic reform of American public education will take time. It must be done. But for our young men and women, the moment is now. They get only one chance to get ready for the future – and their parents only get this time, right now, to help them make their ambitions real. As I noted in yesterday’s Dropout Nation Podcast, these families deserve robust school choice and the right to escape the worst American public education offers. Anything other than that is merely sentencing future generations of children (and America) to economic and social failure.