Indiana’s children return to school this month, and the accompanying headlines remind us that Hoosier legislators have massively increased the availability of what they call “school choice”–otherwise known as educational vouchers.
Given that expansion, a look at the research is timely. “Choice” always sounds positive, until you look at some of the ways that choice is exercised. A recent report from the Brookings Institution focused on that question.
Brookings began with the numbers: 7% of the nation’s schoolchildren are currently enrolled in charter schools, and 9% attend private schools. Between 3 and 5% are being homeschooled. And as researchers point out, a number of public school systems also allow parents to enroll their children in any school in the system.
While the implications of school choice for educational quality and equity are hotly contested, scholars generally agree that in most circumstances choice contributes to racial and socioeconomic school segregation. In most places, charter schools worsen levels of racial school segregation. Furthermore, a large body of research shows that families demonstrate racialized preferences for schools. Most of this scholarship implicitly or explicitly attributes the link between choice and segregation to anti-Black racism, particularly among white and Asian families.
Researchers noted that the way school choice policies are designed plays “an important, but not well-studied, role in shaping families’ school choices.”
In this particular study, researchers examined the effects of policy design on school choices in North Carolina’s Wake County Public School System (WCPSS).
Between 2000 and 2010, Wake County operated an innovative socioeconomic desegregation plan that used school assignments and a targeted or “controlled” choice program to pursue a more socioeconomically and racially integrated school system. Working with the district, we identified the set of schools that the district allowed incoming kindergarteners to select from, the transportation options the district provided to each of these schools, and families’ ultimate choices. We use these data to study how WCPSS shaped the choice sets of incoming kindergarten families and how families’ school choices ultimately served to reproduce a racially segregated school system.
This study was thus confined to the choices available within a public school system. That said, it’s findings were obviously suggestive for “choice” programs like Indiana’s–programs that actively encourage parents to opt for theoretically-public charters or for private (overwhelmingly religious) institutions.
The study reinforced the interrelated nature of America’s racial issues (horrors! CRT!!): researchers found that residential segregation “significantly constrained WCPSS’s desegregation initiative.”
Back when voucher programs were first proposed, well-meaning proponents argued that school choice would allow children from overwhelmingly Black inner-city districts to attend–and integrate–majority-White schools. Both Black and White children would benefit from increased diversity.
Great goal. It didn’t work out that way, and one reason it didn’t was underlined by another Brookings finding:
If you give families segregating options, they’ll take them.
As we noted above, WCPSS’s controlled choice program offered all families school options with a wide range of racial compositions—ranging from predominantly white to predominantly Black. This meant that families had access to either segregating or desegregating school choices.
Researchers found that White and Asian parents presented with an integrating or segregating choice opted for the segregating choice. “In comparison, Black and Latino families’ enrollment decisions were unrelated to schools’ racial makeup.”
Researchers concluded that anti-Black racism shaped how parents navigated the choices they had.
From our work and a number of other studies, we know that many Asian and white families avoid schools with large Black student populations when given the opportunity…. Some degree of school choice has long been viewed as a necessary component of desegregation efforts given the significant historical evidence that families (and white families, in particular) leave districts taking aggressive desegregation action. And of course, even WCPSS’s relatively light-touch curation of schooling options for families ultimately proved untenable. In 2009, voters in the county elected school board candidates who promised to end the desegregation initiative and return to neighborhood-based school assignments—a promise the school board followed through on the following year.
The Brookings study joins several others that have found education vouchers increasing rather than decreasing racial segregation.
Actually, the most depressing conclusion from this research isn’t confined to education: it is the stubborn persistence of widespread racism in American society.
I know several people who originally supported “school choice” because they believed that it would allow poor parents to enroll their children in schools serving more affluent communities–schools able to offer students a better educational environment.
Subsequent research has dashed those hopes of better academic outcomes. The Brookings study joins other research in confirming that–in addition to failing educationally– vouchers simply allow Americans to “protect” their children from people who don’t look like them.