Wednesday, July 20, 2016
New Study Confirms the Role Race Plays in School Choice, But Past Experience and Common Sense Offer a Solution
A recent study of school choice by Steven Glazerman and Dallas Dotter reveals the lingering cold-hard truth that race still matters far too much in parents' decision of where to send their child to school. In their paper, Market Signals: Evidence on the Determinants and Consequences of School Choice from a Citywide Lottery, they find that:
- Parents trade off school demographics and academic performance with distance when choosing schools.
- Parents tend to prefer schools where their children have at least some peers of the same race or ethnicity, but some parents also prefer a diverse school to a homogeneous one.
Preferences vary by race, income, and grade level.
- Simulations suggest that parent preferences, if allowed to dominate school assignment (with no capacity constraints), translate into more racial and economic integration and higher enrollment in high-performing schools.
This last point bears further explanation. The study finds that current school choice is heavily influence by race, but race preferences are not linear. Rather, there are tipping points, at which a school becomes too heavily one racial groups and parents of that group appear to prefer more diversity. The problem in DC is that the system lacks the controls and choices to bring this diversity interest into play. In simulations, however, the study finds that school choice could improve integration. In particular, they assume a world in which the district closed more low performing schools and increased capacity in higher performing schools.
As a side note, this appears to be the exact opposite of what DC has done over the past decade. A lawsuit by special education and minority students in federal district court alleged that DC had closed numerous low performing schools but simply lumped those students into larger low performing schools. Higher performing schools and white families had been almost completely unaffected by school assignment closures and policies in the DC. See more here.
Regardless, this new study, coupled with what half a century of social science has demonstrated about the negative effects of concentrated poverty in schools, confirms why the various choice programs proposed at the federal and state level are such a bad idea. For choice to improve educational opportunity, policy makers have to be far more careful about the context in which they apply it.
The million dollar question is how we might make race matter less in choice program. The answer may be surprising to some: consciously consider race from the outset. Controlled choice plans that account for race and place caps on racial and poverty concentrations have proven extraordinarily effective in creating and maintaining integration. And, as detailed in In Defense of Voluntary Desegregation, once districts achieve some level of demographic balance in the earlier years of a choice program, parents are then forced to begin making school choice based on factors other than race. In other words, race cannot factor in a parent's school choice because demographic are consistent across all the schools they might consider. Within this context, geography, academic programs, and other relevant factors will weigh more heavily. In this way, schools consideration of race is actually the way to make race no longer matter.