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Can Text Messages Help Families Applying for Early Childhood Education Programs?

A new study by Lindsay Weixler, Jon Valant, Daphna Bassok, Justin B. Doromal, and Alica Gerry examines whether changing communications with families via text messages could help parents navigate the school choice process.

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Can Text Messages Help Families Applying for Early Childhood Education Programs?

by Lindsay Weixler, Jon Valant, Daphna Bassok, Justin B. Doromal, Alica Gerry

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High-qual­i­ty ear­ly child­hood oppor­tu­ni­ties can improve a child’s short- and long-term out­comes, but enrolling in ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion (ECE) pro­grams often involves a com­plex, mul­ti-step process. In New Orleans, fam­i­lies apply for pub­licly fund­ed ECE seats through the city’s uni­fied enroll­ment sys­tem, OneApp. After sub­mit­ting their appli­ca­tion online, most ECE appli­cants must pro­vide sup­port­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion, in per­son, to ver­i­fy their eli­gi­bil­i­ty for these pro­grams. These require­ments can be chal­leng­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly for dis­ad­van­taged fam­i­lies nav­i­gat­ing the process with lim­it­ed time and resources, and may ulti­mate­ly pre­vent fam­i­lies from enrolling their chil­dren in ben­e­fi­cial ECE pro­grams. In 2016, rough­ly one third of New Orleans par­ents who applied for a pub­lic ECE pro­gram through the OneApp nev­er com­plet­ed the ver­i­fi­ca­tion step. For this study, we part­nered with the dis­trict office over­see­ing the OneApp to iden­ti­fy and address chal­lenges fam­i­lies may face dur­ing the ECE ver­i­fi­ca­tion process. The dis­trict usu­al­ly com­mu­ni­cates with fam­i­lies through­out the process via for­mal, week­ly email reminders to ver­i­fy eli­gi­bil­i­ty, text alerts for week­end ver­i­fi­ca­tion events, and one robo-call reminder to ver­i­fy. Our study exam­ines whether chang­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions with fam­i­lies via week­ly text mes­sages could help par­ents nav­i­gate the process and increase both ver­i­fi­ca­tion and enroll­ment rates. We used two types of texts: some par­ents received texts with infor­ma­tion about the ver­i­fi­ca­tion process, and oth­ers received per­son­al­ized mes­sages with sim­i­lar infor­ma­tion that also includ­ed invi­ta­tions for par­ents to reply with any ques­tions about the process. We then com­pared these two groups’ ver­i­fi­ca­tion and enroll­ment rates to those of par­ents who received the district’s usu­al reminders. Our key find­ings are as fol­lows: Over­all, text-mes­sage reminders increased ver­i­fi­ca­tion rates by up to 7.7 per­cent­age points, from 59.5% to 67.2%. The text mes­sage reminders were par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive for par­ents who applied sole­ly to pub­lic pre‑K pro­grams. For this group, ver­i­fi­ca­tion rates increased by up to 14.5 per­cent­age points, from 67.9% to 82.4%. Effects for Head Start appli­cants were small­er and not sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant. Per­son­al­ized text-mes­sage reminders also increased enroll­ment for pre‑K appli­cants by 10.1 per­cent­age points, from 62% to 72.1%, while non-per­son­al­ized reminders had no sig­nif­i­cant effect. Almost 90% of fam­i­lies receiv­ing per­son­al­ized text mes­sages engaged with dis­trict staff, pro­vid­ing a real-time glimpse of the spe­cif­ic chal­lenges pre­vent­ing many par­ents from com­plet­ing ver­i­fi­ca­tion. Half of these par­ents asked ques­tions relat­ed to under­stand­ing the process, and one in five men­tioned a logis­ti­cal bar­ri­er lim­it­ing their abil­i­ty to com­plete ver­i­fi­ca­tion. This is the first study, to our knowl­edge, to exam­ine how text-mes­sage sup­port affects ECE ver­i­fi­ca­tion and enroll­ment rates in a cen­tral­ized enroll­ment sys­tem. Our study pro­vides ini­tial evi­dence that sup­port­ing fam­i­lies through the appli­ca­tion process with a low-cost text-mes­sage sys­tem has poten­tial­ly high pay­offs, improv­ing ver­i­fi­ca­tion and enroll­ment rates and enabling par­ents to access high-qual­i­ty ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion for their children.

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