School Choice, Inequality, and Segregation

Given the racialized history of school choice policies, it is not surprising that choice systems continue to play a role in problems of inequality and segregation. Although racial attitudes have progressed since the initial days of school choice, school districts remain highly segregated and choice, in large part, continues to contribute to inequality. This is important to note as we know from decades of research the harmful effects of school segregation, which is attributed to racially discriminatory policies and structures that were intentionally put in place and that, as a result, depleted resources from segregated spaces (Rothstein, 2017). Indeed, segregated schooling environments face a number of issues that contribute to unequal educational opportunities. They are more likely to have inadequate resources and facilities, less experienced and qualified teachers, and weaker curricular offerings, which all contribute to students’ lower academic outcomes (see e.g., Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2010; Orfield & Eaton, 1996; Rumberger 8c Palardy, 2005;

Weiner, 2006). Alternatively, truly integrated schooling environments are associated with better academic and social outcomes. Students who attend desegregated schools are more likely to have cross-racial relationships, less prejudicial attitudes, and are more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods as adults (Mickelson, 2011).

Copious volumes of research show the segregative impact of school choice. Indeed, when school choice policies are color-evasive and not intentionally designed to racially or socioeconomically integrate schools, they lead to segregated schooling environments (Roda & Wells, 2013). Increased levels of racial and economic segregation in large school districts has been attributed to the growth of charter, magnet, and private schools (Saporito & Sohoni, 2006, 2007). Charter schools have been found to be more segregated with student populations that are either predominately white or those that are majority students of color (Frankenberg et al., 2011). Magnet schools are having a harder time realizing the goals of integration that they were initially founded on in part because public interest in racially diverse schools has waned (Smrekar & Honey, 2015).

Moreover, the racial composition of a school continues to play a critical role in families’ decisions as to where to enroll their children. White parents are least likely to enroll their children in schools with Black student majorities (Billingham & Hunt, 2016), even if they value racial diversity (Roda & Wells, 2013). Research shows that, on average, the school choices parents make for their children are exacerbating school segregation and unequal educational opportunity (Billingham & Hunt, 2016). Indeed, as Schneider and Buckley (2002) state, “if White parents select schools on the basis of racial makeup regardless of a school’s instructional quality or curriculum, the end result could be highly segregated schools chosen on the basis of race and not academic achievement” (p. 134).

Disparities among who participates in school choice also exist. Many school choice policies do not cover transportation. Thus, if public transit options are not readily available and families do not have the means to transport their children to schools they cannot take advantage of such opportunities (Holme et al., 2013). Communities of color may also be limited in their choice options and not guaranteed access to desired schools as this depends on space availability, which may result in families turning to charters and voucher programs for their children. Additionally, some families simply choose schools that are close to their neighborhood even though the school may be segregated (Holme, Diem, & Welton, 2014).

Despite school choice policies’ attempt to be color-evasive and therefore, in the eyes of those administering them, “equal” in terms of who has the ability to take advantage of them, they continue to have racialized effects, as evident through the aforementioned discussion. Indeed, as will be considered below, the discourse around school choice perpetuates the false narrative that simply being able to choose a school, for those families that have the option to do so, results in better options for all students. The discourse almost never includes any type of discussion on how an individual choice can impact an entire school community.

General Discourse That Promotes School Choice

School choice policies have always had bipartisan party support. While most Republicans are in favor of all forms of school choice, Democrats are more particular in their types of support (e.g., Democrats may support charter schools but are opposed to voucher programs). Those who support school choice argue that families should have the right to choose where to send their children to school and if schools were run more like businesses and subject to competition, those that are performing better at their “job” would attract more students and those that are not should no longer remain in business. Alternatively, those that oppose school choice argue that the education system is not a business and should not be treated as such. They believe that using public dollars to support school choice undermines the public school system, where the majority of students are enrolled, and by privatizing public education inequitable educational opportunity will abound.

In the Trump era, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came right out of the gate pushing for school choice, a cause that has been central to her agenda and career prior to leading the U.S. Department of Education. In the first two years of the Trump Administration, after a tumultuous confirmation process in which Vice President Mike Pence had to cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm her as the Secretary of Education, and despite having control in both the Senate and House of Representatives, DeVos was unable to push through a budget that would cut funding from the U.S. Department of Education and use federal dollars to support private school choice (Meckler, 2018). While DeVos may not be able to obtain the federal funding she desires for her school choice agenda, in local communities and across states choice efforts persist, despite the persistent inequities associated with them.

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