School choice adds to growth in economic segregation

Segregation of public schools by family income has increased significantly in the past two decades, according to a new study by three leading education researchers. And school-choice policies have likely contributed to economic segregation, they say.

The study draws on multiple data sources to measure segregation of students between school districts and segregation between schools within the same districts. Interestingly, it finds some of the largest increases were in intra-district segregation.

The study is in this month’s issue of the American Educational Research Journal. Authors are Ann Owens of the University of Southern California, Sean Reardon of Stanford and Christopher Jenks of Harvard.

Findings include:

  • Segregation by income between school districts increased by 15 percent between 1990 and 2010.
  • In the nation’s 100 largest school districts, economic segregation within districts increased by 40 percent during the same period.
  • Economic segregation of schools is about two-thirds as extensive as white-black segregation and about the same as white-Hispanic segregation.

The study concludes that rising income inequality in the U.S. is a primary cause of the growing economic segregation of schools. As the gap grows between rich and poor, affluent families are more likely to segregate themselves into enclaves where there are few poor children in the public schools.

Wealthy families, of course, can also opt out of public education altogether by sending their children to private schools – assuming there are desirable private schools near where they live.

But the study says there’s more at work in the segregation of public schools than the zip codes where children live. The authors point to the increase in school-choice options, with savvy and well-connected parents more likely to move their children from neighborhood to magnet or charter schools.

“That movement was propelled in part by the increasing availability of public information on school performance, which some parents have used to decide whether to send their children to local schools that don’t match their incomes and residential preferences,” Carmen Constantinescu writes in Education Week, reporting on the study. “And some research suggest this appears to particularly be the case for higher-income families.”

It’s easy enough to find examples where choice has led to segregation. There’s Indianapolis Public Schools Center for Inquiry School 84, a magnet school where most students are white and only 3 percent qualify for free lunch in a district where 80 percent of students are non-white and 70 percent qualify for free lunch.

And segregation matters, the study’s authors write. They cite research suggesting that poor children do better when they are not in extremely high-poverty schools. They also note that affluent communities are more likely to secure adequate funding and resources for schools than are poor communities.

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