School Choice Means Increased Social Segregation

Last week the Detroit News (24 March 2011) published an analysis of U.S. census and state data showing that school choice leads to greater social segregation between schools. It reveals that many Michigan communities experiencing large increases in African-American population also saw a striking increase in white students leaving their home towns to attend other schools.

The News analysis said that this shift is largely attributed to the schools of choice program operating in Michigan schools. White families are seeking other education options when black families move to previously white dominated suburbs and towns.

“It’s the continuing self-segregation of groups,” said Jason Booza, a demographer at Wayne State University who has studied the racial and spatial dynamics of Detroit for a decade. According to Kurt Metzger, a demographer, “there is a tipping point. When schools reach a certain percentage of African-American (students), whites start looking elsewhere…This is totally about race.”

According to new census figures, more than 184,000 African-Americans moved out of Detroit in the past decade. Many moved to suburbs where both the communities and their public schools have been predominantly white. For example, the African-American population in the East Detroit school district increased from 3 per cent to 25 per cent; in the Harper Woods district it increased from 9 per cent to 48 per cent and in South Redford from 13 per cent to 37 per cent.

Schools in such districts saw an even more dramatic change. The population in the East Detroit district is now 25 per cent black, but the schools are 40 per cent black. In Roseville, where the community is 11 per cent black, the schools are now 20 per cent black while the population of another school district is 24 per cent black but its schools are 40 per cent black.

Metzger said that this gap between the community and school minority populations is created by white families pulling their children out of the local schools and sending them to whiter districts. He said that in the past, white residents uncomfortable with black neighbours sold their homes, but now many cannot move because of declining home prices so they move their children.

The impact is an increasing disparity between rich white districts and poor black districts. As students pull out of increasingly minority districts and take their state funding with them, the schools are forced to cut more programs, making more students decide to leave. “It’s institutional racism, and we need to talk about it,” Metzger said. “We can’t keep closing our eyes.”

A similar process is going on in Australia with the increasing segregation of low and high SES students, especially in secondary schools.

Figures published by the Australian Council for Educational Research show that 50 per cent of students in Independent secondary schools and 30 per cent of students in Catholic secondary schools in 2009 were from families in the highest socio-economic quartile compared to 16 per cent of students in government secondary schools. On the other hand, only 10 per cent of students in Independent schools and 16 per cent of Catholic students are from families in the lowest quartile compared to 35 per cent of government school students.

This social segregation is the direct result government funding policies which give priority to choice rather than reducing inequity in education. Government funding policies have given preference to private schools and pushed more and more higher income families into private schools.

As a result, society is becoming increasingly fragmented where people of different social backgrounds and religions are educated separately rather than together. This is hardly conducive to improving social understanding, tolerance and cohesion.

A change of direction is needed in school funding. School funding policies should give priority to supporting schools that bring communities together and to reduce the effects of socio-economic disadvantage on school outcomes.

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