A “Process That Never Ends”: Parents’ Experiences Navigating a Public Preschool Lottery



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The current study examined how families navigated the rules and admissionsrequirements of Washington, DC’s common enrollment lottery for public preschool. Informed by ethnography and case study methods, multiple in-depth qualitative interviews were conducted with two Black mothers and one White mother over the course of a year to understand their processes for navigating the school lottery. Despite the lottery telling parents to rank schools in the order of their preference, informal rules were identified via lottery preferences and prior waitlist information. Race shaped participants’ school search processes as well, with both Black mothers indicating concerns regarding how some schools would treat their children. While all three participants reviewed DC data on waitlists, school quality, and academic curriculum, they still relied heavily on information from other parents to get specific experiences about schools. Despite an abundance of research supporting the importance of early childhood education on later outcomes, the mothers in this study downplayed the importance of preschool, perhaps in response to the level of effort expended on the lottery process. Their focus for the most part was on the later elementary years and beyond. Quantitative data on school demographics, waitlists, and school ratings are also analyzed to show how school- and ward-level structural constraints informed mothers’ processes. The study occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing a unique opportunity to show how families adjusted to school decisions during this historic event. By the last interview— about one year after the study began—all three mothers were participating in the lottery again.



Early Childhood Care and Education, Preschool Choice, Race, School Choice, School Lotteries, Social Class