The New Segregation

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.


  1. Professor-this is a tragic, yet, well founded confirmation that racism, and antisemitism still exists in our country. So very said.

  2. Choice is OK as long as it doesn’t apply to reproductive rights. Does the legislature not see the irony.

  3. I still can’t get a straight answer how Indiana’s vouchers being used for parochial schools passes muster.

  4. John Joanette; you must have missed the start of this segregation “race”; pun definitely intended. It began here with lies in the Indiana House and Senate that the voucher money taken from public education budget was given directly to the parents of the students applying for vouchers, with necessary requirements to qualify. The money goes directly to the requested school and remains in that school even if the student leaves for any reason whatsoever. Now the financial “qualification” includes the extremely high income families and the student doesn’t have to ever have seen the inside of a public school to decide they are dissatisfied with the quality of education provided.

    Like the start of busing here, the education system is claiming it is for “quality”; at that time the black students living 2 blocks or so from white schools were not allowed to attend. They were included with the white students bused out of their neighborhoods; the expense of busing used up much of the public education budget beginning the lowering of quality in all public schools and teacher’s salaries were part of that loss.

    Neither busing or vouchers increased the quality of education in any of the schools in Indianapolis’ education system, public, private or religious. The money is going anywhere but in educating our young who will be our leaders tomorrow. Will they even be educated enough to realize the lack of quality education is the basis for the loss of American democracy, sacrificed to reach the segregation levels we fought to end with the legally passed Civil Rights Amendments?

    “Actually, the most depressing conclusion from this research isn’t confined to education: it is the stubborn persistence of widespread racism in American society.”

  5. The Indiana voucher system was legitimated by the State Supreme Court. The Chief Justice at the time (I forget his name) denied that the program violated the state Constitution’s ban on subsidizing religious schools with state money, because the money went directly to the parents, not to the school, and the parents were free to use the money however they wanted.

    That contorted logic was enough for enough of the Justices to approve this segregation policy. The Chief Justice could not possibly have believed the logic, so he probably was going out of his way to avoid pissing off the legislators, who might penalize the Justices the next time they wanted a raise in pay.

  6. Sheila concludes, “…vouchers simply allow Americans to “protect” their children from people who don’t look like them.”


    School administrators know it, but for some reason, it’s not a topic in local media. The media execs decided to call some patrons “racist” was bad for revenue.

    Lying by omission.

    And try digging up the evidence to prove this point in your school district, and you’ll find squat. Once again, lying by omission.

    It helps who it helps (wink, wink), and that’s how it is. It goes along with the myth that minorities are the biggest users of government assistance, so if we cut government assistance, you somehow force “lazy minorities” back to work.

    And the the MAGA crowd gets offended if you point out the racist component of their belief system as they attend school board meetings objecting to factual teaching of our history. They must believe if they eliminate slavery from our history or teach students that slavery was beneficial (DeSantis), racism will suddenly disappear like magic. Poof!

    The white-washing of our history and present is a popular past-time for oligarchs and racists facing billions in reparations. 😉

  7. Is anyone surprised that racism is alive and well in America today? I would have thought that the last seven years would certainly prove that point.

    Neighborhood schools are clearly the best option, if the “neighborhood” is designed to send the students to the closest school, rather than the closest “white” school or the closest “black” school.

    If the local school is close enough to get to without relying on public transit, more parents can be more engaged in their children’s education. That’s better for everyone.

  8. John@6:56, in case someone more knowledgeable doesn’t respond, my understanding was the Indiana courts decided that if you launder the state subsidy thru the parents instead of giving it directly to the parochial school, there’s no church/state collusion.

  9. I live in Wake County, NC. My children went to Wake Public Schools from Middle School through High School. Here’s one thing that people who push for bussing and desegregation of schools don’t realize or don’t think about – and that I observed in the years that my children were in those schools – children will self-segregate if left on their own in any situation. Human nature? Or familial influence and custom? Probably both. It’s akin to prison. Groups form as a way to protect the individual AND the philosophies that group represents. You can’t just throw them into a building as a diverse group and expect it to be all “kumbaya.” There must be a catalyst that encourages – and sometimes forces them – to interact positively.

  10. The attempts by Republicans to destroy public education has been ongoing since the day Lincoln was shot. They’ve used all sorts of methods and lies to undermine, undercut and underfund public education everywhere they’ve been in power. This is yet another supporting hypocrisy to the Rick Wilson meme: EVERYTHING REPUBLICANS TOUCH DIES.

    EVERY analysis shows that academic achievement is at best the same and at worst worse than that from public schools. Vouchers are just another sop to the racism that permeates the Republican mind set.

    The solution is voting out as many Republicans as possible from ALL levels of government – including school boards. They are simply not capable of doing the right thing in an egalitarian environment due to their corruption and backwardness.

  11. RDH – thoughtful cheers from The Hill for your report.

    Too bad the focus of the research isn’t on class rather than race. If it was, here is the REAL segregation – classism.

  12. We all are prejudiced towards favorable outcomes.

    Some parents are just plain racists raising future racists. They’re a hopeless out of touch with the future lost cause trying to create the New Confederacy here and isolate from the rest of the world.

    Others more equate black with poverty and know that poor raises tough and that scares them.

    Others assume that the education system knows how to educate and they bow to expertise.

    Still others actively participate in their children’s education taking on much of it themselves and understand that multiracial multi class diversity will be part of their children’s future and want to prepare them for it.

  13. Today’s topic is the most powerful reason to have required two years national service.

  14. And Indiana Public Media reported that the IN Chamber of Commerce says we need to improve our workforce readiness to be competitive. And, NYT’s reported a major study of all 50 states for people thinking of moving…IN was 50th, yes 50th in well-being. 40th in health care costs but 7th in affordability. So despite being affordable, people don’t have a sense of well-being. The IU Health monopoly, stripping public schools of funding, and a right wing legislature have taken their tolls. And we are probably going to have Braun or Rokita as governor. Ugh!

  15. I went to high school for two years in Lawrence Central where students were bussed in from the inner city. It was there that I started to learn about the various gangs of Indianapolis. Students would get into fights in the hall, were allowed to wear their gang colors, and were openly doing gang signs. When I informed my mom of all of this she was of course concerned. Then I failed math and had to take a summer course at North Central. I liked the atmosphere better and my mom moved me to North Central. I distinctly remember seeing our Principal at the time E.B. White stop a student wearing colors and tell the student “this is inappropriate for school.” So while I understand the benefits of a student population having diversity, the safety of your child trumps that. There are “white gangbangers” as well as black. It’s probably “the gangbanging” that unfortunately causes an unintended segregation.

    The sad thing is Indianapolis as a city has always seemed to have a certain amount of young people toting guns and shooting each other dead. And it seems that inner city schools are not supported in the way they should be to tackle the kinds of issues they are dealing with. We are failing inner city kids. Arsenal Tech is notorious for being a rough school.

    Are we having a problem right now with radical white extremism in our country? Yes we are. There were racists in the coup on Jan. 6. Michael Flynn is convincing people that we are having a “Holy War” as if Trump is some sort of “Savior” which is just disturbing. So just as parents should be concerned about what their children are exposed to in the “inner city schools” they should be aware of what could be floating around inside a predominately white “Christian School”.

  16. It is easier to recognize color, Lester. However, people who do not see the classist structure of society will not understand that people of color are treated differently. Despite 40 years of trickle-down economics, the top 10% is thriving while the masses are being left behind. Predatory capitalism is responsible for our social problems.

  17. Todd, WADR, even if only 10% of whites are in poverty and 60% of Blacks/Latinos are (I don’t know the real numbers), if we only talk about/care about/report about the Blacks/Latinos we, like it or not, TIE and DRIVE racism and classism and doom a real democracy.

  18. When I was in grade school back in the early 90s we had a class meeting at one point where our teachers sat everyone down to tell us we were getting a new student who was black. It seemed like, to the teachers, this was something we needed to be given some time to process or something. The teachers were all in their 50s and 60s at the time, so I suppose maybe they thought the class would have some kind of objection or wouldn’t be welcoming to a black student (the school’s only black student at the time, if I remember correctly).

    As I recall, all the students in the meeting (myself included) were baffled as to why we needed to have a special meeting about this. It was just another kid to us.

    I really thought racism wasn’t much of a thing to “our” generation based on that meeting. Ah, how wrong it turns out I was when I got out in the world later.

  19. On a more positive note people might be interested in a Film by Ted Green about Carl Erskine and his efforts to help others. It’s stories like this that give me hope for the future.
    He also did a video on “Eva Kor” of Candles.

    Though I think one of the most uplifting stories I have ever heard was of Desmond T. Doss who was a conscientious objector of war who saved “75 men” with no weapon over a period of 12 hours as a medic. To me that IS a Good Christian.

  20. The court’s holding that giving public education funds to parents rather than the schools did not violate the forbidden admixture of church and state was wrong. It fortified both religious and racist attitudes in both parents and their kids and their kids’ kids ad infinitum. The holding itself can be fairly said to be racist, and I am reminded that in the 1920s the home office of the KKK was not in Atlanta or Montgomery but was rather in Indianapolis and that the justices on the Indiana Supreme Court who decided to fund religion and racism with public monies were once impressionable kids.

  21. Robin, “Choice” is used in education to further segregation, and theocratic thinking, while in regard to reproductive
    rights it’s seen as anathema by the theoratic oriented, as it does not fit their agenda, and irony is beyond them.
    Class divisions rule! Racism helps support that division, along with predatory capitalism.

  22. Of course racism is the underlying motivator in all things American. That being said, I bought in to one of the finest school systems in the state, which is 90+% white, because the most important factor in the quality of education for a very talented child is the achievement level of the other children and thus the degree to which a system can focus on more rigorous academics.

    I, Mr. Anti-racist, chose full white flight for the sake of my children. And I would do it again.

    Obviously vouchers are just wealth redistribution to cults, and I don’t have any easy answers for the problem of how to raise the quality of education for black children in the U.S., but it’s a pipe dream to think that parents with resources will not make the best choices they can for their own kids, regardless of the impacts on others.

  23. Decades ago while working in the North Central cafeteria, I noted that kids often self-segregated by race, mostly along color lines. There were a few Asian and Latino students in Washington Township schools at the time. The one exception was among kids on sports teams. Generally, but not always, they integrated themselves at lunch tables. Shared experience and team goals? Maybe. Understanding that individuals recognizing the talents and skills of others, working together for successful outcomes, respecting the advantages of coordinated collective actions were more pleasing than resentment and forced separation? Maybe.

    I have always believed that most bigotry is taught at the kitchen table not in school. Distrust and suspicion are built on an individual basis, often reinforcing already taught means of perception. Individual personalities, social and cultural norms and, certainly, economic status set parameters that predict likely outcomes. Those outcomes can be positive or negative, carrying forward as the foundations for future perceptions. Only exposure to different experiences and ideas are likely to change those perceptions.

    The idea of 2 years of national service is not a bad idea but only if the playing field is fair and evenly maintained. I don’t know if that is possible in our society.

  24. Get rid of vouchers. Poor kids need to go to lackluster schools. The affluent and less affluent must always be segregated; It’s good enough for Over It,it should suffice for all of us. It looks like the only solution is to stop funding public schools and privatize education. For those that cannot afford education ? Send those unlucky-sperm recipients to Ukraine.

    Like everything else,only those with merit shall reap prosperous dividends.

  25. Lester and Todd,.

    Both make good points! But, the link that Lester provided, proves that there is really no link to intellectual neural pathways when it comes to politics.

    The public school system was never designed for competition. It’s not in the DNA. And when religion starts to get its claws into governmental public entities, historically, they collapse. The public school system is on life support right now, and the government and some of these states engages in bloodletting.

    How is bloodletting supposed to better public schools? Just like medical practice of bloodletting killed its patients, the siphoning of the public school systems life blood, vouchers, is going to kill the patient. And this is the intent!

    With the public school system out of the way, the religious organizations then can happily attempt to fill the void. That in itself will be a massive failure and historically, it leads to collapse of societal norms. It It Hastens the divide between citizens, especially a melting pot such as this particular country.

    Not good, not beneficial! But, absolutely disruptive and destructive!

  26. Indiana’s charter school and voucher laws financially incent segregation by income, test scores, special ed. status, native languages, availability of parents to volunteer, ability to provide one’s own transportation to school. They don’t call it classism or racism or anti-immigrant, but these criteria clearly incent all the above discriminations.

    Voucher funds – laundered through the parents – also reward religious discrimination and indoctrination. Church members’ children get first preference, as do church members seeking employment in the church school. And the courts have permitted firing of excellent church school teachers and counsellors who don’t meet some church criteria – such as being gay or married to someone of the same sex. Interestingly, church schools cherry pick which violations of church doctrine warrant discipline. Divorce, use of contraception, adultery, and more have not made the same employee dismissal headlines I voucher recipient church schools.

    There’s also a HUGE profit motive from the private sector in pushing charter schools. Any time a charter school is sponsored or managed by a for-profit entity, the profit motive can overwhelm and deny services to students, enrollment of difficult-to-educate students, offering a more diverse curriculum with more choices, offering more expensive programs like vocational education, hiring highly qualified and experienced educators, providing transportation services, and more.

    The school choice movement is reducing the choices students have in our public schools and which the charter and private schools don’t and won’t offer. That kind of competition will be our undoing.

    Thomas Jefferson said that a democracy that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never was and never will be. Unfortunately there are very powerful interests who don’t like democracy and much prefer authoritarianism. These are the same interests which have pushed so hard for charter and voucher schools. While there are well-intentioned folks who also support both, they are forcing all of us to ride a tiger, and it won’t turn out well.

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