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New Zealand is a school choice utopia. But do students perform better?

This story is the first of a three-part series that examines how other countries approach the idea of school choice. Upcoming reports on school choice will focus on Sweden and France via The Hechinger Report.

Diane Parkinson, principal of Bucklands Beach Intermediate School in New Zealand, puts her best foot forward when recruiting students.

On a sunny Monday in August, Parkinson, along with two students and an assistant principal, went to visit Bucklands Beach Primary School to talk to the sixth-year students there. Sitting on the floor of their library, the dozens of students dressed in red and navy blue were an eager audience.

The students would soon be making their final selection for middle school; although many had already put in applications for BBI, not all had done so. The visit was an opportunity to answer general questions about Intermediate School for all students, to help ensure a smooth transition, and to make a sales pitch for BBI to those who had not yet made up their minds.

Parkinson and the others explained how students are placed in their classes and what kinds of activities they can take part in during fifth period, such as beginner golf, orchestra and karate. They mentioned a brand new sports facility that was under construction, called the “BBI Sports Cloud,” noting that incoming seventh-year students will be the first class to have use of these basketball and netball courts for their entire Intermediate School careers.

Students asked questions about science classes, whether there was a biking team and if they would have chances to play dodgeball. (The answer to the last one was yes, prompting a wave of hushed, happy murmurs.)

“Who’s excited?” Parkinson asked at the end of the visit. Almost every hand in the room went up.

New Zealand is a school choice utopia. In 1989, the country passed a set of ambitious education reforms based on the same arguments for school choice that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and others have made here: Let parents choose where to send their children.

The “Schools of Tomorrow” laws abolished the concept of neighborhood schools and gave parents total freedom to enroll their children wherever they wanted — a decision that parents in New Zealand report has made them generally happy about school choice and happy with their schools.

But research on whether more school choice improves education is mixed. Real-life examples from around the world also provide little evidence that allowing families more freedom of choice improves achievement. Even though New Zealand’s scores on international exams are above average, they have remained largely unchanged since the tests were first administered in 2000, and the percentage of students who were at least moderately proficient has decreased slightly in recent years.

New Zealand is “a good example of the pitfalls of relying on choice and competition between schools,” said Cathy Wylie, a chief researcher for the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER), an independent research organization.

Related: OPINION: Those who wanted federal power over schools now fear Betsy DeVos might use it to foster choice and voucher plans

“Large scale choice isn’t a sufficient or reliable systemic lever to provide a good quality education for all a country’s students,” Wylie said.

Wylie and other critics maintain that there’s no indication that student achievement has improved as a result of school choice. They say this may be, in part, because parents and schools didn’t respond to choice as proponents anticipated they would.

In practice, many school administrators in New Zealand said that knowing their students could leave to go to other schools doesn’t motivate them to improve academics — they’d care about that regardless.

Instead, the impact of competition often manifests in more superficial ways that might make parents happy but doesn’t drive performance. For example, principals make sure they have printed information ready to hand out to interested parents and that their schools’ websites are up-to-date. They try to get the local paper to write about student accomplishments. They strive to keep the main office welcoming and the school clean.

Construction was underway at Bucklands Beach Intermediate School in New Zealand for a new sports facility called the BBI Sports Cloud. The school makes sure prospective students know about all the opportunities they’ll have for sports and other extracurricular activities if they enroll. Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz/The Hechinger Report

School choice advocates believe schools will try to improve when faced with competition that could draw away students, diminishing their budgets and even forcing them to close. It’s why school choice advocates in the U.S. cheered DeVos’ appointment, hoping it would unleash new funding and federal support for more charter schools, private school vouchers and other “choice” options, such as virtual schools and online programs.

Bucklands Beach Intermediate School, which is located in an affluent suburb of Auckland, has three other schools that serve seventh- and eighth-year students (the equivalent of sixth- and seventh-graders in the U.S.) within a three-mile radius. Parkinson supports competition and thinks it serves as a motivator to make the school the best it can be.

“I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” Parkinson said, picking up a piece of trash. “I go on about image and how people make assumptions based on the way you look.”

Other principals don’t bother to spend time and energy recruiting students. In rural Greta Valley, located about an hour north of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island, Principal Malin Stone takes a more laid-back approach. He says he’s happy to show any prospective parent around the tiny Greta Valley Primary School, which has two multi-age classrooms that serve first- through sixth-year students, but doesn’t pressure them to choose his school. He also deliberately tries to minimize the competitive feeling between his schools and others. Any time an interested parent stops by, for instance, he’ll call their child’s current school to let the principal know.

Similarly, he believes that if a family wants to leave his school, it probably means they’re not a good match. “If they don’t want to be here, we don’t really want them here,” he said.

Currently, two families who live closest to Greta Valley chose to go to another school, and three families bypass their local school to come to Greta Valley. But, they have to drive their kids there each day.

That’s another reason school choice hasn’t had the impact its supporters may have hoped in New Zealand: New Zealand only provides direct buses for students who attend their closest school. (Students not attending their local school can get on the bus at any point in its route, but this generally still requires extra travel on the family’s part.) So, the degree of choice parents have largely depends on where they live and what their resources are.

Victoria King wasn’t impressed by the local school when she was making her decision last year, so she drives her 6-year-old son about 20 minutes each way to get him to Greta Valley every day. She’s not sure if she’ll keep doing so, though. She’s taking on more responsibilities at the family’s farm, and has heard promising things about the impact a new principal is having at her local school.

Related: U.S. charter schools aren’t measuring up to their promises

“I am having to work out if the hour-and-a-half travelling a day for an excellent school balances up better than potentially having more time and also having better quality time with my children,” she said. “If the bus from Greta Valley were to come much closer to our house, I wouldn’t change schools at all.”

King originally looked at two other schools before picking the 40-student Greta Valley. She liked the teachers and the small size, and believed her son would get plenty of attention. She says she knew almost instantly after walking into Greta Valley’s campus that it was the right school. “It took no more than two and a half seconds” to decide, she said.

Parents often rely on gut feelings when choosing schools. Location, extra-curricular activities, and current or past attendance by other family members are also important considerations. And that’s another likely reason why school choice here hasn’t had the effect advocates hoped for. Academics aren’t always on the top of the list when parents choose a school and – even when they are – parents don’t always know what quality looks like.

That means there’s no guarantee that parent choices will empty out low-performing schools or fill up high quality ones.

The country’s Education Review Office publishes reports on the quality of education at each school, which includes information about student performance, curriculum and leadership, about once every three years. At the elementary school level, parents can also look up what percentage of students meet national standards each year, and at the high school level, the pass rates of an optional national exam are available.

2015 NZCER survey found just 18 percent of parents or guardians of New Zealand high schoolers said they looked at a school’s annual test scores when choosing a school. By comparison, 23 percent said they looked at the school website and two-thirds attended open houses at the schools.

The same survey found that 35 percent of parents said academic results informed their choice — the same percentage that said a child’s friend going to a school was a factor.

The results track with international data. An 11-country survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that more parents said it was “very important” to consider a school’s reputation, safety and “active and pleasant environment” than its academic achievement. Research in the United States has also found that parents look at a variety of factors in addition to academics when making a school selection.

In some ways, that can be a good thing. Just about anyone in education would agree schools should be judged on more than just test scores. The New Zealand government explicitly warns families against picking schools based on only national standard results. But when parents are given free rein to choose schools, they may also consider non-academic factors that are problematic: the race and income of a school’s students.

Critics around the world have worried that one unintended consequence of more school choice is more segregation. U.S. studies have found charter schools can exacerbate segregation.

In New Zealand, segregation is also on the rise, researchers say.

Minority students in New Zealand, including indigenous Maori, are concentrated in the nation’s poorest schools, while fewer than 1 percent of students of European descent are enrolled in schools with the highest number of low-income students. Other research has shown that the number of students in poor schools is decreasing overall, while the number in rich schools is growing, suggesting that parents with means are increasingly turning away from low-income schools.

“We’ve started this white flight and class flight,” said Liz Gordon, managing director of Pukeko Research, a New Zealand-based group that focuses on education, social services and justice. “It was not based on the quality of the school.” She said that middle and upper-middle class families in New Zealand tend to trade up, picking schools just above their own social class.

Students at Greta Valley Primary School in New Zealand record the weight of different objects as part of a math lesson. Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz/The Hechinger Report

New Zealand has inadvertently made it very easy for parents to pick and choose based on the demographic profile of a school. The country’s education funding system labels each school as decile 1 through 10 based on the socioeconomic makeup of its students. A decile 1 school has the poorest population, while a decile 10 school has the richest. Lower-decile schools get extra money. Critics warn that a well-intentioned funding system has become a way for wealthy parents to avoid schools with low-income students.

Hokitika Primary School is a decile 4 school in a small town on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. When acting Principal Nicola Minehan moved to the small town two years ago, locals advised her against applying for a job at Hokitika Primary School. She changed her mind when she visited. “All I could hear was the laughter coming from the classroom,” she said. She submitted her application for deputy principal and also enrolled her granddaughter who lives with her.

The school’s biggest competitor is in a wealthier part of the town and is a decile 7. Former Hokitika Principal Kath Martin said the other school “is seen by locals to be the ‘best.’” She said the school lost 10 students earlier this year when the wealthier competitor opened up more slots.

That’s despite the fact that Hokitika received a generally positive review from the Education Review Office in 2014, which found that “most students are achieving at or above expected national levels in reading, writing and mathematics” and concluded “the school is well placed to sustain and improve its performance.”

Related: In the black community, a division over charter schools

The competing school performs better on national standards, but Hokitika’s students made gains in recent years after new leadership and a new curriculum focused on social-emotional learning was introduced. Though kids at Hokitika are poorer and tend to arrive further behind, data shows the school has been successful at helping them catch up with the kids at the wealthier school by the end of primary school.

The school’s progress has stalled according to its most recent review, published in October, and reading achievement has started to dip. But, the review noted, the school had already put programs in place to monitor and improve student achievement.

Minehan and the school’s other educators are frustrated that the successes they have had Hokitika have yet to make a difference in its reputation.

So now, Minehan says, school officials are focusing on other things to raise their profile: sponsoring a float in the local Christmas parade and holding a Twilight Market. They try to get photos in the local newspaper every chance they get. “We’re getting better at that,” she said. “The pressure is there.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter here.