Background/Context: Prior research overlooks the importance of drawing distinctions within the category of defaulters or “nonchoosers” in schooling choices. Defaulters are both a theoretically and empirically interesting population, and understanding the processes by which families come to or are assigned the default school offers insight into the micromechanisms contributing to the reproduction of inequality through education.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: In this study, I use in-depth interview data to understand defaulting and propose a basic framework that gets beyond a chooser/nonchooser dichotomy. The purpose of this work is to help researchers and school district officials to identify areas of school choice systems that are incompatible with would-be choosers. This study further offers a useful framework for thinking about defaulters and their role in the school choice process.
Population/Participants/Subjects: This study draws from survey and interview data from 28 low-income to working-class African American parents in the Chicago Public Schools whose children were at a choice juncture (the transition from eighth grade to high school).
Data Collection and Analysis: This study utilizes survey and in-depth qualitative interviews. Surveys and interviews were conducted in person and lasted from 30 minutes to 2 hours each. Parent respondents filled out a survey that included demographic information, family and child activities, community connectedness, and basic activity around choosing a high school and then answered open-ended questions about their specific choice activities, their ideas about education, and their information networks. I employed inductive coding to analyze the interview data.
Findings/Results: In this study, I find that families who arrived at the default outcome did so in ways that followed patterns similar to those found in studies of choosers. Families’ inclination to choose, capacity for choice, and school preferences, as well external barriers, compose a framework that helps to explain how some parents labeled as “nonchoosers” or defaulters in other studies are actually actively engaging in the choice process and, further, how the choice process itself can lead those who perceive themselves as choosers to be classified by researchers as nonchoosers or defaulters.
Conclusions/Recommendations: The defaulter framework provides insight into the barriers that some families face to active choosing and, as such, suggests potential micro- and macro-level interventions to meet the needs of a variety of potential types of participants in choice systems.