Unregulated School Choice Exacerbates Segregation and Inequity

New research studies continue to demonstrate the harmful consequences of greater choice and competition in schooling.

The latest issue of Peabody Journal of Education delivers yet another blow.

It contains several new studies of the consequences of school choice programs in the United States which broadly confirm the findings of many earlier studies.

First, uncontrolled or unregulated choice programs tend to exacerbate segregation of students along race, class and achievement lines. In contrast, regulated choice programs have the potential to increase social integration of students in schools and, at the very least, to prevent further segregation. Finally, there is little evidence that unregulated choice programs lead to improved academic achievement.

These conclusions show that the strategy of the Federal Government to increase choice and competition by encouraging parents to ‘vote with their feet’ by publishing school results is doomed to failure.

Open choice programs increase social segregation

A study of school choice amongst elementary and middle school students in Durham, North Carolina, compared the characteristics of students who opt out of their assigned school with students who do not. It found that well-off families tend to use school choice programs to opt out of assigned schools with concentrations of disadvantaged students and to attend schools with higher achieving students.

The authors note that their findings concerning what type of students opt out of their assigned school and which schools lose the most are consistent with the findings of other studies from settings as diverse as Chicago, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Cincinnati, San Antonio, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Scotland, and New Zealand. The evidence suggests that many forms of school choice generate greater concentrations of advantaged or high-achieving students in some schools.

They also note that it is widely agreed that schools characterized by excessive concentrations of educationally disadvantaged students often have detrimental effects on student achievement. As a result, expanded school choice tends to benefit higher income and well educated families at the expense of poorer learning environments for those left behind, who are most often students from lower income families.

A study of inter-district school choice in Denver concluded that it segregated students by race and socio-economic background. Students from higher income families were far more likely to participate in inter-district school choice, and overall, choice students were much more likely to transfer to wealthier school districts. White students were more likely to opt out of racially diverse districts and transfer to districts with greater percentages of White students.

Another study analysed the open choice program in the San Diego school district in California. It found that the open enrolment program increased segregation of students in terms of race, socio-economic status and student achievement. Lower socio-economic students were under-represented among those who changed schools. More advantaged students used choice to switch to schools of higher socio-economic status, a finding consistent with the related literature.

Two other recent reviews of research corroborate these findings. The US National Academy of Education concluded that choice plans that do not regulate student assignment to schools in a race-conscious manner have the tendency to increase racial stratification. Similarly, a study by academics at Colombia University and the University of Texas concluded that free market choice policies have led to greater racial and social stratification between districts.

Other articles in the Journal investigated the reasons unregulated school choice increases social segregation in schools. One study found that White parents tend to choose schools on the basis of their racial composition. Another found that parents’ decision strategies appeared to be associated with social class status. Middle class parents’ social networks put them in contact with a higher proportion of non-failing selective schools than did poor and working-class parents’ networks.

Controlled choice programs can reduce social segregation

In contrast, studies show that controlled choice programs have the potential to reduce social segregation of students.

Controlled choice programs do not rely on market competition between schools to initiate school improvement, but attempt to provide choice while maintaining ethnic, racial and socio-economic integration. Controlled choice plans do away with neighborhood attendance districts, create zones, and allow families to choose within their zone, provided that admitting students to their school of choice does not upset the social balance at that school.

A study published in the Journal analysed the impact of two controlled choice programs in San Diego, California. Both were designed to encourage students residing in White communities to attend schools in non-White communities, and vice versa. Unlike the open choice program in San Diego, they provide transportation and regulate the assignment of students. Both programs improved integration in terms of race, achievement and parent education level, in contrast to the impact of the open choice program.

A comprehensive review of inter-district school choice programs carried out by academics from Colombia University and the University of Texas found that desegregation programs, in contrast to open choice polices, are the most effective at serving the least advantaged students.

The study concluded that inter-district school desegregation programs led to greater diversity in the suburban districts and less racial isolation in urban schools.

Free market choice does not increase student achievement

Another study published in the Journal reviewed the research on charter schools and student achievement. It concluded that the effects of charter schools on student achievement are decidedly mixed.

The authors suggest that the racial and economic composition of student populations in certain charter schools may intersect with the academic outcomes they produce. As for other schools, charter schools that serve poor students of colour in isolation, for the most part, struggle to produce good academic outcomes.

There are notable exceptions, but strong performance in exceptional cases may be because of selective admissions criteria, parent contracts, and other criteria that may serve to exclude the more difficult to educate students. – Trevor Cobbold

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