Race a factor in public school choice

Students who use Indiana’s public school choice option to switch to a different school district are more likely than their peers to be white and less likely to be from low-income families, according to school transfer data from the Indiana Department of Education.

In many cases, the students are transferring from racially diverse districts to districts that are mostly white and less poor. The data suggest that public school choice, regardless of its intentions, has contributed to students being more segregated in schools by race, ethnicity and family income.

For example, 90% students who transfer out of Anderson Community Schools are white, compared to the 53% of students attending schools in the district. Most Anderson students transfer to nearby Frankton-Lapel, Alexandria and South Madison districts, where 90% of students are white.

  • In South Bend Community Schools, white students are 27% of enrolled students but 66% of students who transfer to other districts.
  • In Muncie Community Schools, white students are 57% of enrolled students but 82% of transfers.
Transfer charter
Race/ethnicity for enrolled and transfer students. Not included: students who identify as Asian, Native American or multiracial. Source: Indiana Department of Education.

The same trend holds true at other districts with large numbers of public transfer students: Kokomo and Marion, for example. In Frankfort Community Schools, where over half of enrolled students are Hispanic, 89% of transfer students are non-Hispanic white.

There is a similar pattern for students who are and aren’t low-income. In some districts, including Anderson and South Bend, students who transfer are about half as likely to qualify for free or reduced-price school meals as students who don’t transfer.

Percentage of students receiving free-reduced price schools meals and paid meals. Source: Indiana Department of Education.

Indiana expanded inter-district transfers in 2009, after the state took over funding for most school operations. With districts relying less local property taxes, they had no reason to turn away out-of-district students, if they had room and the families could provide transportation. In many cases, they had an incentive to welcome transfers, because they brought more state funding.

District-to-district transfers have become Indiana’s biggest school choice program, involving nearly as many students as charter schools and private school vouchers combined. Some districts, including Muncie, Kokomo and Marion, lose about one-fourth of local students to other districts.

None of this is to suggest that families who transfer their children are motivated by bias. For some families, a school in a neighboring district may be closer to home or work and more convenient. For some, the choice may be related to perceptions of academics or other factors.

But we know our schools are deeply divided by race and social class, and there’s now evidence that public school choice contributes to that stratification, at least marginally. Choice may be popular with families and policymakers, but it’s not without its drawbacks.

Coming soon: What are the demographics of students who receive private school vouchers?

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