One Reason School Segregation Persists

Dana Goldstein, Slate, July 15, 2016

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A new paper sheds light on exactly that. The study, by Steven Glazerman and Dallas Dotter of Mathematica Policy Research, took advantage of the school lottery system in Washington, D.C., which allows families to apply for classroom seats outside of their neighborhoods. Past research shows that when asked, American parents claim that academic performance is their greatest priority when selecting schoola for their children. But Glazerman and Dotter were looking for “revealed” preferences: the conclusions that could be drawn not by talking to parents, who might feel pressured to give socially acceptable responses, but by examining how 22,000 applicants of varying races and classes actually ranked 91 public charter schools and 110 district schools, at the pre-K, elementary school, middle school, and high school levels.

The researchers tested a broad range of factors that could explain why parents choose a school: its proximity to a family’s home, test scores, after-school activities, uniform policies, class size, the crime and income levels of the surrounding neighborhood, and the racial and socio-economic makeup of the school’s student body. Only three of these factors significantly drove parental choice. Parents preferred high test scores, schools closer to home, and schools where their own child would be alongside more peers of his or her same race and class.

Across race and class, a middle-school parent was 12 percent more likely to choose a school where his child’s race made up 20 percent of the study body, compared with a school with similar test scores where his child’s race made up only 10 percent of the study body. White and higher-income applicants had the strongest preferences for their children to remain in-group, while black elementary school parents were essentially “indifferent” to a school’s racial makeup, the researchers found. The findings for Hispanic elementary and middle school parents were not statistically significant.

{snip} At the elementary-school level, white Washington parents prioritized schools where about 60 percent of the student body was white and were slightly more likely to avoid schools with larger percentages of white children. At the middle school level, the researchers found that the “bliss point” for white parents was a student body that was 26 percent white. In a district where 73 percent of students are black, 14 percent are Hispanic, and only 9 percent are white, such preferences contribute to a significant clustering of white children, which results in black and Hispanic students being further segregated. (The researchers were able to isolate race from other factors, like location and test scores, so these racial preferences appear to operate independently of other factors parents look for in a school.)

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