Choice, Information, and Constrained Options: School Transfers in a Stratified Educational System

Peter M. Rich, Jennifer L. Jennings

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


It is well known that family socioeconomic background influences childhood access to opportunities. Educational reforms that introduce new information about school quality may lead to increased inequality if families with more resources are better able to respond. However, these policies can also level the playing field for choice by equalizing disadvantaged families’ access to information. This study assesses how a novel accountability system affected family enrollment decisions in the Chicago Public Schools by introducing new test performance information and consequences. We show that a substantial proportion of families responded by transferring out when their child’s school was assigned “probation.” Poor families transferred children to other schools in the district, but at a lower rate than non-poor families, who were also more likely to leave for another district or enroll in private school. Most striking, we show that despite family response to the probation label, access to higher-performing schools changed very little under the new policy; students who left probation schools were the most likely of all transfer students to enroll in other low-performing schools in the district. Although new information changed families’ behavior, it did not address contextual and resource-dependent factors that constrain the educational decisions of poor families.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1069-1098
Number of pages30
JournalAmerican sociological review
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1 2015


  • education
  • public policy
  • school choice
  • segregation
  • social stratification
  • urban sociology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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