Sensemaking in Non-Public School Choices

Myra B. Lovett

Assistant Professor of Curriculum & Instruction, University of Louisiana at Monroe, mlovett@ulm.edu

 

Timothy G. Ford

Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, University of Oklahoma, tgford@ou.edu

 

Abstract

Using Weick’s (1995) sensemaking theory and a phenomenological approach, the researchers sought to investigate the process by which parents choose non-public education. The study included interview data from ten parents of homeschooled and private school children in Louisiana and examined the decision-making process that guided them in choosing non-public schools. Utilizing the four phases of Weick’s sensemaking process, five crosscutting themes emerges as influencers that helped parents in both determining and retaining non-public school choices for parents in Louisiana. These influencers included: (a) social network; (b) environment; (c) religion/worldview/ moral values; (d) academics; and (e) time, convenience, and flexibility. Results indicated the parents of non-public school children in this study were thoughtful and deliberate in following a sensemaking process as they made educational decisions for their children. The results aligned with other studies’ regarding influences on non-public school choices. Future research opportunities are discussed.

Keywords: homeschooling; home schooling; private school; non-public education; decision-making; sensemaking; school choice

 

School choice has garnered increasing attention in recent years. With more choices than ever before, many parents are passing over neighborhood schools in favor of non-public options that include homeschooling and private schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2009), between 1993 and 2007, the percentage of children attending their assigned public school decreased from 80 to 73%. Additionally, those attending private school represent 10% of all PK-12 students with 79% attending religiously affiliated schools, and the homeschooling rate rose from 2.25% in 2003 to 3.4% in 2013. (NCES, 2013; Redford, Battle, & Bielick, 2016). This growth in school choice is found in both the public and private sectors. Choices that were once afforded only to the wealthy are increasingly available to others, allowing parents a stronger voice in their child’s educational future.

Homeschooling is a phenomenon that has steadily grown in the United States over the past 30 years. An estimated 1.5 million students are now homeschooled as more and more parents choose to educate their children themselves (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). Homeschooling has become a viable educational option, now accounting for more than 2% of all school-age children (Isenberg, 2007). Evidence of positive outcomes for homeschooled children has only added to the contentious nature of this non-public school option. Data on homeschooling student outcomes indicates similar or better success when compared to counterparts in public and private schools (Cogan 2010; Collom, 2005; Ray, 2009 & 2013; Wichers, 2001).

Shifts in non-public school options in the realm of private schools are evident as well. Enrollment numbers in religious private schools increased slightly from 8% to 9% from 1993 to 2007. Nonsectarian private schools also saw an increase in this timeframe from 2% to 3% in overall enrollment (Grady & Bielick, 2010). Homeschooling has seen similar growth with a jump in the total percent of children homeschooled in 1999 of 1.7% to 2.9% in 2007 to 3.4% in 2012 (NCES, 2012; Provasnik, Gonzales, & Miller, 2009). With options such as public school choice plans, charter schools, magnet schools, private schools (with or without vouchers), and homeschooling, around 15% of American school-aged parents and their children have chosen the non-public school route, versus only 10% in 1999. The rise in the proportion of American families turning away from public schools in favor of non-public options (Grady & Bielick, 2010) begs further investigation of the reasons and circumstances behind these choices.

Through the lens of Weick’s (1995) sensemaking theory, the purpose of this study was to examine commonalities and differences in the decision-making process that guided ten Louisiana parents in their non-public school choices.  By better understanding the decision making process and the influences on it, we can begin to understand why some parents are making the choices they are. The following are the study’s two primary research questions:

  1. What is the decision-making process of parents as they choose non-public schools?
  2. What influences the decision-making process of parents who choose non-public schools?

 

Review of Literature

 

Homeschooling

Despite many myths surrounding homeschooling and the families that choose to homeschool, research has revealed a highly heterogeneous group driven by various motivations (Collom, 2005; Mackey, Reese, & Mackey, 2011; Hanna, 2011; Van Galen 1988, 1991). Understanding the homeschooling parent was central in the research of Collom (2005), Mackey, Reese, and Mackey (2011), Hanna (2011), and Van Galen (1988, 1991). Van Galen’s (1988) landmark research divided parent motivations for homeschooling into two categories: ideological and pedagogical. Those considered ideologues chose to homeschool because they did not agree with what was being taught in public and/or private schools, and the opportunity to homeschool would afford them a chance to bolster their relationships with their children. This group is epitomized by adherence to particular beliefs and values and a desire to pass these on to their children. Those considered pedagogues, defined as educationally motivated, chose to homeschool out of a desire to stimulate their children’s intellect and creativity through a pedagogy that is more individualized. Pedagogues’ argument with public schools was not necessarily curricular in nature, but rather doubt about the ability of the public education system to use pedagogical strategies that would help their children reach their full potential.

However, all studies on parental motivations do not necessarily support Van Galen’s (1988) two-category system. Hannah (2001) utilized Van Galen’s typology but added a third “combination” category to indicate parents who agreed equally with the pedagogical and ideological reasons for homeschooling. Collom (2005), Ensign (2000), Arai (2000), and a study by the National Center for Education Statistics (2008) used at least four distinct categories to differentiate parental reasons for homeschooling. Other categories added to ideology and pedagogy categories over the years include: general dissatisfaction with the public school environment and specific family needs (Collom, 2005). Further, the National Center for Education Statistics (2003) cited their top three reasons for the homeschooling choice as follows: concern for the environment (85.4%), dissatisfaction with pedagogical practices (68.2%), and a desire to convey religious or moral training (72.3%).

Ensign (2000) and Arai (2000) highlighted a less-discussed motivation for homeschooling distinct from other studies: the desire to improve service to children who exhibit learning disabilities or giftedness. Parents of these children were troubled by the lack of individualization their special needs children receive. By capitalizing on the ability to adapt the environment and curriculum to meet individual needs, parents of special needs children found homeschooling to better suit their educational purposes.

 

Private Schooling

While homeschooling numbers rise, private school numbers have remained fairly steady for decades at 10%-11% of total school enrollment. This alternative to public schools has long held the role of “avenue of educational diversity” in America (National Education Association, 1984, p. 15). Though this percentage is significant, it posed little threat of overtaking the public school choice prior to the school choice movement (Chubb & Moe, 1990).

Though private schools have been historically exclusive, recent studies have shown a more heterogeneous and diverse private school makeup. Yang & Kayaardi (2004) utilized 1998-2000 GSS (General Social Survey) data to study non-public school choices. They found approximately 17% of parents chose non-public school with nearly 11% choosing religious schools, 2.9% nonsectarian private schools, and 2.4% homeschooling. NCES (2016a; 2016b) studies had numbers somewhat lower between 13% and 15%.

Reasons for choosing private schools have changed over the years. Results of a Gallup Poll in 1969 found that parents of private school students were most concerned with religious influence, followed by a desire for values, attitudes, and diligence. Findings in the 1980s indicated that several environmental concerns were significant reasons to leave public schools, including: (a) discipline and overcrowding,(b) dissatisfaction with the curriculum content, (c) lack of religious values, (d) issues with racial integration,( e) academic quality, (f) an impersonal, bureaucratic approach to schooling, and (g) a lack of emphasis on discipline, as well as civic and moral values (Edwards & Richardson, 1981; Erickson, 1981; Peebles, Wilson, Wideman & Crawford, 1982; Schwartz, 1986). A later study revealed that cost considerations, quality of teachers, and security of the environment were important factors in making non-public decisions (Daugherty, 1991).

Bausch and Goldring (1995) grouped influences on parental decision making into the following five categories: (a) child’s choice, (b) location/family reasons, (c) discipline, (d) religion, and(e) academic curriculum. A rise in the appearance of academics and environment were evident in follow-up studies in the 1990s, like Laudermilk (1994). Taylor’s (1996) study added the dimension of meeting the individual needs of the child. As these studies moved into the new millennium, new influences on private school choice were being uncovered, such as those found by Wolfe (2002): school size, safety, parental/student composition of the school, and other friend and family influences.

Public opinion regarding private schools is largely positive. Perceptions include higher educational goals and smaller classroom sizes for students in private schools. Satisfaction with school is 26% higher among private school parents when compared to those with children in public school (Herrold & O’Donnell, 2008).

 

Parental Decision-Making

As one type of non-public school choice, myriad studies can be found on homeschooling, though research that investigates the reasons behind other types of non-public choices is limited. One of the few that have incorporated a wider-range of non-public school choices, Yang and Kayaardi (2004), found alignment between the types of parents who choose to homeschool and those who choose private schools.  They used pooled 1998-2000 GSS data to examine what kinds of parents tend to select non-public schools in a nationwide snapshot. They examined the characteristics of parents with children in private schools, both religious and non-religious, and homeschooling parents. While this prior study forged new ground in our understanding of the similarities and differences among parents who choose different types of non-public school options, the decision-making process that led to these choices and the influences upon it are less clear. A study that investigated similarities and differences in these areas is the next logical step.

 

Theoretical Framework

One thing that a review of the literature reveals is that the process that informs parents’ decisions about where and how to educate their children is complex. A theoretical lens that is particularly suited to the task of examining the determinants of non-public school choice is sensemaking theory, conceptualized by Karl Weick (1995).
Figure 1 displays Weick’s sensemaking model. It proposes that as ecological changes occur, the sensemaker first acts in response to the change. So, for instance, children draw nearer to school age and educational options present themselves. The sensemaker then reflects using retrospection, social interaction and external cues and makes a selection or decision, based on a simultaneous interpretation of information present about the various options as well as their own values, beliefs, and dispositions. Continuing on through this process, the sensemaker may retain his selection or make another selection. Through examination of the potential consequences of the choice, the sensemaker can determine if the selection was the right one or if another selection or new action is required. Of course, another ecological change may cause the process to start again.

The premise of sensemaking theory is that reality is ever changing and efforts are made to create order in the present while making sense retrospectively of actions taken. This is an ideal means to interpret the parental path in making decisions regarding their children’s education. In the context of sensemaking theory, many options are available for parents, including: public schools (including neighborhood, charter, or magnet schools); private institutions (including religious or nonsectarian schools); or homeschooling. Adopting a phenomenological approach to the study of the lived experience of the participants in the process of making non-public school choices, we hoped to better understand what drives parents to make the choice they do. As sensemaking theory suggests, this involves both a process and a mindset that informs the process. As such, we consider public choice theory as a lens to understand the mindsets of parents while sensemaking theory may serve to guide us in an understanding the decision-making process.

 

 

Method

 

The data for this study were collected in north Louisiana using a phenomenological approach (Moustakas, 1994). The primary objective of a phenomenological study is to elucidate the lived experiences of a person or group around a particular phenomenon (Christensen, Johnson, & Turner, 2014)—to understand the phenomenon through the eyes of the participants, as it were. These aspects of the phenomenological approach render salient its alignment with our proposed study and adopted theoretical framework.

One of the primary data collection methods for phenomenological studies is an in-depth interview with each participant. Thus, parents of both homeschool and private school children were interviewed to better understand the decision-making process of parents in choosing non-public schools. Ten parents, five who homeschooled their children and five who sent their children to private schools in the north Louisiana region, were found through purposive and snowball sampling methods. Using a semi-structured interview protocol, the thought processes and influences in the participants were elicited in an open-ended format that observation or surveys alone could not readily convey.

Interviews were recorded, with participant consent given, and then transcribed. The researcher coded interview transcripts with a second reader employed to help establish the validity of coding and analysis. Additionally, member checks were conducted with study participants to ensure credibility of the interpretations of interview data. This procedure consisted of participants submitting a reflective summary post-interview of the interview discussions, and these were coded and compared to the interview transcripts. After coding, data displays and checklist matrices were constructed in alignment with theoretical guidance of Weick’s (1995) model to identify themes found among and across participant groups. Following this data analysis, the participants were sent a data display of the overall findings of the study and were asked to respond and comment on these via email.

 

 

Results and Analysis

 

While past research has uncovered multiple reasons for non-public school choices (Bauch & Goldring, 1995; Benson & McMillen, 1991; Bukhari & Randall, 2009; Carpenter & Kafer, 2012; Goldring & Phillips, 2008; Grady & Bielick, 2010), we sought to add more dimension to non-public school choice through a deep understanding of the sensemaking process behind a wider range of non-public school choices than have previously been investigated. Through this process, the how as well as the why were explored. Furthermore, by combining both private school and homeschool settings as part of the non-public community, commonalities and differences could be better understood. While we acknowledge that this is only an initial look at these sensemaking processes with a relatively small number of parents in one region of the country, through our research we hoped to gain insights into non-public school choices that could set an agenda for further research in this area with more representative samples of parents in the U.S.

To best explicate the interview findings, the sensemaking process phases (ecological change, enactment, selection, and retention) were used as categories to better organize themes found across the participants. This organizational scheme allowed for greater understanding of the chronological journey that parents take in their sensemaking.

 

 

Figure 1: Weick’s Sensemaking Model

                                                   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table 1 illustrates the themes that emerged from our interviews as organized through the sensemaking stages. Themes were ordered from strongest to weakest within each phase. That is, the themes most often expressed by the participants for a given phase are at the top of that section. Findings seen in few participants were considered discrepant or non-confirming and were not included in the findings. To maintain anonymity and preserve identification of type of school, the parent participants were given identifiers of HS1, HS2, etc., to indicate a homeschool parent and PS1, PS2, etc., to indicate a private school parent.

 

Phase 1: Ecological Change

In the first stage, ecological change, four factors served as triggers to the sensemaking process for our participants. In order of most referenced to least referenced in the interviews were the following themes: (1) environment, (2) time/ convenience/ flexibility, (3) religion/worldview/moral values, and (4) academics. Environmental concerns included school location, unsafe events and practices on campuses, negative peer influences, bullying, and perceived lack of care by school administration and faculty. One parent, PS4, named escalating events at her son’s middle school as the prompt for a mid-year exit from public school:

 

There were a lot of problems with fights and my son several time had his calculator, books, stolen. Yeah. He had not been in a fight himself but there were a lot of fights at the school. A lot of cussing by the students in the classroom and the teachers were not able to control the discipline in the classroom. The week before we moved him to [private school] there were 16 fights in one week and the principal, she ended up in the hospital with broken ribs as a result of trying to break up one of the fights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phase 2: Enactment

In this phase, the sensemaker gathers information that will influence the decision. Seven themes were found among the participants in the enactment phase. These themes consisted of inquiry methods and other considerations that were integral factors and/or actions prior to the selection. The seven themes are ordered by strength of participant reference and include: (1) community, (2) finances, (3) time/convenience/ flexibility, (4) curriculum, (5) religion, (6) Internet research, and (7) visiting educational sites.

The most common means of assimilating information that led to a decision with all participants was the use of their social networks.  Social networks, as it relates to this sensemaking process, refers to the network of people that the parent knows well and can serve as a channel through which the parent can gather information to inform their decision (Coleman, 1988). This would include friends, family, neighbors, and acquaintances from work, school or church. All participants credited social network members as being influential in their decision-making.

For HS3 and HS4, the idea of non-public school options came about through the example of friends and neighbors. As their children got older, both of these stay-at-home moms had influential friends who homeschooled. HS3’s best friend was a teacher who decided to homeschool, and her niece was also homeschooled. When speaking of her friend she said, “She was a teacher by trade and she had decided to homeschool, and so it was [because of] her interaction and her influence that she did it that I felt I was able to do it as well. So that’s kind of how I came into it.” Similarly, HS4 believed that her neighbor who homeschooled “opened up the possibility.”

Second to social network influences were financial evaluations; they were a priority for 70% of the participants. For many of the homeschooling parents, private school was not an option due to the number of children they had. HS5 had considered private school for just the oldest because she could not afford private school tuition for five children. Instead, she chose to homeschool all of them. Conversely, PS4 and PS5

 

rearranged their finances or worked extra shifts in order to pay for private school tuition. HS4 stated, “It was definitely a struggle financially. We had to get things in line with our budget to be able to afford private school for 3 kids.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table 1. Themes Organized by Phases of Sensemaking and Participants

 

Phases of

Sensemaking

Themes Parent

Codes

 

Ecological Change

   
  Environment HS1,HS2,HS3,HS4,HS5,PS1,PS2,PS3, PS4
  Time/Convenience/

Flexibility

HS2,HS3,HS4,PS4,PS5
  Religion/Worldview/

Moral Values

HS1,HS2,HS5,PS3
  Academics PS1,PS2,PS4, PS5
Enactment    
  Social Network HS1,HS2,HS3,HS4,HS5,PS1,PS2,PS3, PS4,PS5
  Finances HS3,HS4,PS1,PS2,PS4,PS5
  Time/Convenience/

Flexibility

HS2,HS4,PS1,PS2,PS4,PS5
  Curriculum HS2,HS3,HS4,PS4,PS5
  Religion HS1,HS2,HS3,HS5,PS3
  Internet Research HS2,HS5,PS2
  Visiting Sites PS3,PS4,PS5
Selection    
  Homeschooling HS1,HS2,HS3,HS4,HS5
  Private, Protestant

School

PS1,PS2,PS4
  Private, Catholic School PS3
  Private, Nonsectarian School PS5
Retention    
  Social Network HS1, HS2, HS3, HS4, HS5, PS2, PS3, PS4,

PS5

  Academic Success HS1, HS2, HS4, HS5, PS1, PS2, PS3, PS4,

PS5

  Religion/Worldview/

Moral Values

HS1,HS2,HS3,HS4,HS5,PS2,PS3,PS4
     
  Environment HS1,HS2,HS4,HS5,PS1,PS2,PS4,PS5
  Time/Convenience/

Flexibility

 

 

HS2, HS4, HS5, PS2, PS3, PS4, PS5

 

  Family Relations HS1,HS3,HS4,PS2,PS3, PS4
  Current Events in Public Education HS3,HS4,HS5, PS4,PS5

 

 

 

Considerations of time, convenience, and flexibility were significant for 60% of the participants. For private school families, the convenience of having all of their children at one location played a role in enactment. For PS1, the convenience of carpooling with others that lived out of town like her family was significant factor in her choice. The thought of two more years of several different school drop-off sites, as mentioned in the first phase, was a compelling consideration for PS4. This factor looked somewhat different to our sample of homeschooling parents because time can be more flexibly distributed. For HS4, preserving family time was an important factor: “[I] just [wanted] to make sure we had as much time as we could as a family together with him [the father] traveling so much.” Another wanted to have a more flexible school day. HS2 indicated, “Time was also a big factor for us. I did not want (especially my son) – he would not be happy sitting in a classroom for seven hours a day. . . We can get his work done and when it is done he’s free to play his games and do his other activities without the stress of having another two hours of homework at the end of the day, too.”

Phase 3: Selection

Given that this study investigates the phenomenon of non-public school choice, the selection of the sensemakers is that of non-public school; however, as Table 1 demonstrates, this can be divided further into types of non-public school choices. The participants of the study included five that chose homeschooling and five that chose various private schools. Three of the participants in the study had children in private Christian schools; one had children in a private Catholic school, and one in a private nonsectarian school. Of the five who chose to homeschool, all participated in a local homeschooling community or co-op.

 

Phase 4: Retention

Once the selections were made, the sensemaking process led the parents to analyze and examine the results of their decision in terms of retention. Though many themes at this phase were found in other phases, a couple of unanticipated outcomes contributed to retention decisions. The five themes found across participants that echoed earlier phases included (1) community, (2) academic success, (3) religion/worldview/moral values, (4), environment, and (5) time/convenience/flexibility. Two other themes emerged to add to participants anticipated results were (6) family relations, and (7) current events in public education.

School social networks were the leading influence in the retention phase. For nine of these parents, the strength of the social network and positive aspects for them as parents and for the children were a welcome surprise to these parents in the study that overwhelmingly influenced retention. Homeschooling parents like HS2 felt the social network was extremely important for her children and her own friendships:

The homeschool group has been very positive. We’ve made a whole bunch of friends. [My children] probably have more close friends that are homeschooled than church friends now. That is the main thing. . .

It’s been a good community experience. It gives me instant friends that I can call if I have questions. We’ve taught classes together with our homeschool group . . . but it’s been good for me and the group.

 

Other parents—both homeschool and private school—referred to the relationships among the families. PS3 shared, “[My sons] have lots of friends here and their friends are in their class. [My husband] and I are good friends with their parents. It’s like we all know each other. We do stuff on the weekends. We go to dinner. It’s a tight-knit relationship.”

Another strong theme found in retention, important to nine participants, was the academic success of their non-public education. This included the success of their children as well as other children that have preceded them on the same path. This theme resounded with parents whose children struggled academically, those who were academically advanced, and those who had no initial academic concerns.

 

Critical Themes

For the purpose of examining influences, themes that were found in multiple phases were used to determine influences on parents in making non-public school choices. These critical themes were found across multiple phases include the following: (1) social network; (2) environment; (3) religion, worldview, and/or moral values; (4) academics; and (5) time, convenience, and flexibility. Table 2 shows these critical crosscutting themes that influenced homeschooling and non-public school parents’ decisions.

 

Theme References for Each Group

The influence of social networks garnered the highest frequency across the phases, with 19 references by participants and an almost even distribution between the homeschool and private school parents (ten and nine respectively). Social network referred to friends, family, and acquaintances that served to influence decision-making prior to selection. After the selection was made, the social network had naturally expanded to include new friends and acquaintances gained in the new non-public school setting. Second were the environmental concerns of the participants. This had an even distribution between private school and homeschool participants. The next—in order of frequency—were religion, worldview, and/or moral value references with a total of seventeen references, unevenly distributed with only 5 references by homeschooling parents and 12 references by private school parents. Academics were referenced 12 times, 8 times by homeschooling parents and 4 times by private school parents. Also, the theme of time, convenience, and flexibility was referenced twelve times evenly between parent groups.

 

 

 

Table 2-Critical Theme References by Group and Phase

Critical Themes Groups Distribution of Themes by Phase

1             2             3           4

Theme Reference Totals by Group Theme Totals
Social Network Homeschool

Private School

 

 

10

9

19
Environment Homeschool

Private School

   

9

9

18
Religion/Worldview/

Moral Value

Homeschool

Private School

 

5

12

17
Academics Homeschool

Private School

 

 

8

4

12
Time/Convenience/

Flexibility

Homeschool

Private School

   

6

6

12

 

 

 

Discussion

 

This study found a total of 22 themes across the four sensemaking phases. When reduced to crosscutting themes, five critical themes remained: (a) social network; (b) environment; (c) religion, worldview, and moral values; (d) time, convenience, and flexibility; and (e) academics. Each of these crosscutting themes was found across sensemaking phases and in both homeschooling and private school participants. Three of these were evenly distributed between the two groups: social network; environment; and time, convenience, and flexibility; however, the critical theme of religion, worldview, and moral values was referenced more by homeschooling parents, and the theme of academics was referenced more by private school parents.

Within our sample of parents in Louisiana, the theme of social network emerged as the most influential on parents’ decision-making. Social network members including friends, family, and acquaintances in the sphere of the participants were particularly integral in the phases of enactment and retention. When gathering data, all ten participants cited social network influence as part of their decision-making process. In analyzing and interpreting the results following selection, nine of the participants attributed their social network—now wider due to their initial non-public choice—as influential in sticking to their non-public school decision. Several of the parents mentioned regret that they did not know sooner about the richness of these non-public school social networks now open to them.

The second critical theme nearly as strong as social network was that of environmental factors. For the participants, environment involved concerns for the safety of their children, peer influences, and the care shown by administration and teachers. The concern for the environment of public schools was referenced nine times during Phase 1. Actual events that happened to the participants when they were in school or that happened to their children prior to leaving public school were recounted. Others who never sent their children to public school referenced concerns for the environment based on observations, stories heard from others, or news related through the media. This finding aligns with findings from other studies, in particular the NCES’s (2013) study of reasons for homeschooling decisions.

The next critical theme, that of religion, worldview, and/or moral values, was not equally represented between the two groups of participants. Mostly notably, these were referenced much more frequently by private school parents, and much less frequently by homeschooling parent—in fact it was the least-cited critical theme among homeschooling participants. The strength of this theme among private school participants and the simultaneous weakness of this theme for the homeschooling parents represented a stark difference between the two groups. In contrast to common misconceptions about the most important drivers of homeschooling decisions, religion, worldview, and moral values are shown to be of greater concern to private school parents than homeschooling parents. We acknowledge, however, that this finding is due in part to the fact that 80% of the private school parents in our sample sent their children to a religious school. Some of the lack of representativeness of the private school sample is due to features of the private schooling options in this region of Louisiana, which favor religious over non-religious options. Nevertheless, our findings support those of other nationwide studies that have shown religion and moral concerns as a declining influence among homeschooling parents from most important in 2007 (36%) to third in importance in 2013 (21%) (Bielick, 2008; National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). However, our findings do support prior studies that have acknowledged the importance of religious/moral considerations second only to academic environment as primary reasons for choosing private school (National Center for Education Statistics, 1995; Williams, Hancher, & Hutner, 1983).

Time, convenience, and flexibility as a theme was referenced 12 times in this study with an even distribution between homeschool and private school parents. This has also emerged in recent studies as an influential factor. The most recent study by the NCES (2013) indicated that family time, travel, and distance were three of the “other reasons” parents gave for homeschooling. Participants in the ecological change phase identified all three of these sub-themes. Furthermore, four additional participants found that these factors were integral in the retention phase. It stands to reason that, if a parent must travel for work, lives far from other schooling options, or has nontraditional work hours, this could not only precipitate the decision making process (ecological change), but also influence their decision to retain their decision if, in fact, the decision turns out to better fit their hectic schedule.

The last critical theme found among participants with 12 references was academics. This theme served as a stronger influence on homeschooling parents than the private school parents, and a closer examination of the distribution of this theme across phases aids in explaining this result. Three private school participants voiced academics as a trigger in decision-making and all five felt it influenced retention. Conversely, academics served only as a source of retention among homeschooling participants. In the case of homeschooling parents, academic success was unanticipated, and upon experiencing a positive outcome in this regard aided in preserving their decision. Though not considered a trigger for the homeschooling decision, 80% of homeschooling parents referred to academic success as a source of retention, and thus can be viewed as one important reason why our sample of participants chose to continue homeschooling. This finding for our sample of Louisiana parents supports NCES findings, which place academics third in importance among homeschooling parents after environment and moral instruction (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). Dumas, Gates, & Schwarzer (2010) reported that “while a state may compel the education of children, parents have a fundamental role in deciding how it should be done in their family.” Armed with this mindset, these parents journeyed on a path of sensemaking that resulted in non-public decisions.

 

Conclusions

 

For our sample, parents of homeschooled children and parents of private school children were comparable in their process of making educational decisions and experienced similar sensemaking influences. Both groups followed Weick’s (1995) sensemaking process through all four phases with great similarity in the means and influences of determining and retaining their original choices. Three of the five themes were balanced equally across these two groups, suggesting more similarities in their sensemaking than differences. Indeed, at least for our sample of Louisiana parents, some of the typical stereotypes of homeschooling parents seem to be dispelled. For example, it was notable that religion, worldview, and moral values were not the primary factors of influence among our participants in triggering the decision-making process, nor were they more influential in the retention phase than environment, social network or academic factors.

In addition, the most vital influence in triggering sensemaking in this study was environmental concerns. Parents desired an environment that was safe, had positive peer influence, and had a caring administrative staff and faculty. Parents noted that bullying, school shootings, fights in schools, student disrespect towards teachers, and stressed teachers and administrators who did not listen as some environmental factors that pushed them away from public schools. Such environmental concerns have topped the list in recent studies over academics and religion among homeschooling parents (Grady & Bielick, 2010; National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). Compiled data concerning private school parents placed safety second only to academics and affirmed the heightened importance of environment trending in recent studies (Bukhari & Randall, 2009).

Finally, though unaccounted for in many studies, the influence of social networks emerged as critical theme. Participants referenced social networks most often both before and after making a selection. Building on findings in other research (Bell, 2009, this study confirmed that for our sample of parents, acquaintances, friends, and family can exert powerful influence on decision making, by providing counsel and serving as information channels for the flow of knowledge about options and for the discovery of like-minded people (Coleman, 1988). We suspect that the use of sensemaking theory and phenomenology made this theme particularly salient, due to the recursive nature of the sensemaking process and the influence that like-minded individuals can have on making and retaining non-public schooling decisions.

Looking through the lens of Weick’s sensemaking theory, the purpose of this study was to examine commonalities and differences in the decision-making process that guided ten Louisiana parents in their non-public school choices. It was hoped that, by better understanding the decision making process of these families and the factors influencing this process, we might begin to understand why private school and homeschooling parents are making the choices they are. This topic emerged from what we identified as a paucity of research comparing and contrasting these two groups and their decision-making processes. We hoped that this study of an albeit limited sample of parents might initiate a new direction in non-public school choice research. Accordingly, we hope that future research will incorporate a larger more representative sample of non-public school choice parents in an examination of their decision making process.

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