School Choice Policies and Racial Segregation: Where White Parents' Good Intentions, Anxiety, and Privilege Collide

School Choice Policies and Racial Segregation: Where White Parents' Good Intentions, Anxiety, and Privilege Collide

Issue/Topic: Choice of Schools--Choice/Open Enrollment--Research; Parent/Family
Author(s): Roda, Allison; Stuart Wells, Amy
Organization(s): Teachers College, Columbia University
Publication: American Journal of Education
Published On: 12/7/2012

A growing body of school choice research has shown that when school choice policies are not designed to racially or socioeconomically integrate schools - which most newer school choice policies are not - they generally manage to do the opposite, leading to greater stratification and separation of students by race and ethnicity across schools and programs.

To examine white, upper-middle-class parents' interactions with a market-based school choice policy, how the parents make decisions about which schools are desirable within the policy context, and whether they would support changes to those policies that would lead to less stratification and segregation in schools


While opinion polls note that there is a growing acceptance among whites of racial diversity in public schools, the nation's schools - including those in District Q - have become increasingly segregated.

*District Q is a community school district that is operating a public elementary school choice plan (open-enrollment).

Effects of the market-based school choice policy in District Q:

Two contradictory yet simultaneous trends were found:

White upper-middle-class parents make choices based on:

  1. Availability of viable choices. District Q offered only two schools that were racially diverse.  All other schools featured almost all-white gifted and talented programs or almost all-black and Latino general education programs.
  2. Anxiety about getting children into the "best" schools. The relative advantage in terms of resources and networks that the white parents have in order to take advantage of school choice results in increased anxiety because with their power to manipulate the system comes a heightened sense of the consequences of not winning the school choice competition. This stress pushes them further away from making choices that reflect the value they place on school and classroom diversity.
  3. Prioritization of schools perceived as "good" over all else. Social networks play a significant role in parents' definitions of a "good" versus "bad" school and this social construction of "good" schools is often based more on who was enrolled - determined by race - than what is taught. Race is central to the ways in which parents make sense of their school choices.



Policy Implications/Recommendations:

The way in which school choice policies are written, regulated, and implemented has huge implications for the kinds of outcomes they will foster, both in terms of their short-term effects on school-level racial diversity and their long-term effects on political support for public education.

Policy can provide incentives for districts to:


Research Design:

39 randomly sampled, white upper middle-class parents who participated in the 2006 kindergarten school choice process for both general education and gifted education in "District Q" in New York City. "District Q" has 18 elementary schools and a highly diverse student population.

Year data is from:


Data Collection and Analysis:
Interviews of a random sample of parents

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