Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Are More Options Always a Good Thing for Citizens? An Experimental Study of School Choice, Performance and Satisfaction

Saturday, November 14, 2015 : 10:55 AM
Tuttle Center (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Oliver James, University of Exeter, Sebastian Jilke, Erasmus Universiteit and Gregg Van Ryzin, Rutgers University
Public services increasingly incorporate choice-based arrangements, with public school choice systems being an important case, for example in some US cities (such as New York) and many local jurisdictions in the UK. The rationales for choice suggests parents’ satisfaction with the school will be greater when they have exercised choice, relative to no choice, and that it will be greater still when given a larger choice set. Yet, insights form decision-theory challenge this neoclassical presumption of individual decision-making behaviour. In particular, the theory of choice-overload argues that as when the number of alternatives to choose form increases, decision-making becomes poorer and less likely, including being disappointed and regretting forgone choices. It has been argued that these adverse outcomes can be explained by three basic factors: information overload, unclear preferences and negative emotions. In particular, choosing in a context of many options often means disregarding potentially attractive alternatives. This literature stands in stark contrast to basic assumptions put forward by basic psychological theories of human motivation and economic theories of rational decision-making, that is “[…] that having more, rather than fewer, choices is necessarily more desirable and intrinsically motivating” (Iyengar and Lepper, 2000: p. 997). In this context we ask whether increasing school choice leads citizens to become less satisfied with the schools they choose for their children?

To evaluate these hypotheses we conduct a survey experiment in which we vary choice sets composed of short descriptions of hypothetical schools presented to respondents, including a limited choice set, a large choice set, and a no-choice control condition. We subsequently vary the level of reported performance of the school (presenting either high or low performance report cards) and then measure perceptions of performance and overall satisfaction with the school. The aim is to mimic the often limited information and actual structure of choice typically presented to parents in jurisdictions offering school choice. We will run our experiment on an internet sample of approximately 800 US citizens that is broadly representative of the general population, with data collection occurring in July 2015.

Analytically, we will test whether having choice leads to more satisfaction, when reported performance is high, and less satisfaction when reported performance is low. In addition, we will examine whether the number of choices presented to respondents influences subsequent evaluations of performance and satisfaction judgments. We expect our findings to have implications for theory of choice in public services and the behavioural consequences for citizens.