Publication Date


Type of Culminating Activity


Degree Title

Doctor of Education in Curriculum and Instruction


Curriculum, Instruction, and Foundational Studies

Major Advisor

Scott Willison, Ph.D.


Politicians and educational leaders often cite school choice as a sound mechanism for improving public education. However, education theorists and researchers call for more research to verify whether and how choice has an impact on what happens in public schools for all learners, and suggest that there is a need for more naturalistic-constructivist studies to examine the realities inherent in school choice contexts. Missing from the research literature are in-depth perspectives of those on the front lines of school choice decision: parents.

This naturalistic-constructivist inquiry used grounded theory and mixed methods to examine parents’ recollections of their own elementary education experiences, perspectives on their children’s schooling experiences before and after school choice decisions, and perceptions of school choice as a mechanism for school improvement. Data collection included a demographic survey, school and community data, and semi-structured interviews with 33 parents who enrolled children at a progressive charter public school in a northwestern state during the 2009-2010 school year. Emergent-grounded theory methods were used throughout data collection and analysis to develop a theory that reflected parents’ perceptions in this context, in relation to school choice in other, broader contexts.

The results of this study can inform policy makers, educators, and theorists about how school choice influences parents’ perceptions of and decisions about school improvement and public schooling. Findings within the three themes of Who Chooses and Why, Parental Involvement, and Outcomes of Choice included:

  • School choice decisions are tied to parents’ reasons for choice, parents’ demographics, and the types of schools being selected. School choice decisions are complex mosaics of influences, and may be further complicated by potential barriers in learning about and accessing schools of choice.
  • Participants identified both a moral imperative as citizens to provide good public schools for all children and a moral duty as parents to provide their own children with the best opportunities and education possible, and recognized conflicts in meeting both.
  • Parental involvement is related to how much a school encourages and utilizes parents for purposes that validate parents' time by engaging them actively with children and necessary tasks.
  • A symbiotic relationship exists between parents, who have an interest in being involved, and the school, which needs and expects parental involvement, resulting in enhanced success for students and the school.
  • Parents perceived that choice would not improve the educational opportunities for students who do not access schools of choice. Instead, choice will divide schools into parallel schooling systems.
  • The primary tool for school improvement, according to parents in this study, is changing the culture of schools through combining parental involvement with choice.

This naturalistic-constructivist theory resulted in a grounded theory reflecting parents’ perceptions of school improvement, parental involvement, and the private and public goods of education in a democratic society.

Keywords: school choice, school improvement, charter schools, parent perceptions, parent involvement, schooling in democracy, grammar of schooling.