Having free choice in where to go to school may, counterintuitively, drive segregation instead of reducing it, according to the findings from a new study.
The study, “School choice increases racial segregation even when parents do not care about race,” was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Dr. Kalinda Ukanwa, an assistant professor of marketing at University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, served as the study’s lead author. Dr. Aziza C. Jones, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Business, and Dr. Broderick L. Turner Jr., an assistant professor of marketing at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business were co-authors.
The researchers gave approximately 1,600 Black and white parents the unmitigated choice of varying fictional schools to find preferences for factors such as a school performance rating, teacher experience, income, racial demographics, and commute time.
Ukanwa defines unmitigated school choice in this context as any parent being able to select any school, anywhere in the area.
The parents rated the school attributes in terms of importance. And although both groups valued teacher experience, Black parents were more willing to forgo other attributes for higher-rated schools, whereas white parents valued short commutes more, the study found.
“These preference differences stem from motivational differences in pursuit of social status,” the authors of the study wrote. “Given that the de facto US racial hierarchy assigns Black people to a lower social status, Black parents are more motivated to seek schools that signal that they can improve their children’s status.”
High-income Black parents were shown to have the highest preference for the highest-rated schools compared to high-income white parents, low-income white parents, and low-income Black parents, the study found.
Ukanwa – a mother of a young child looking for a fitting school – said she found herself surprised and delighted by some of the findings, particularly about how Black parents prioritized education.
“The results, some of it, I think confirmed what I had gone through, what I had gone through with my friends who had children around the same age,” Ukanwa said. “And I also found surprise with certain results. … That Black parents placed a great deal of weight on the rating of a school flies in the face of traditional notions out there in our society that Black parents don’t care about education, when in fact we found that Black parents care a whole lot about education.”
The researchers created a computer simulation of how these different preferences would play out in a school district with seven schools and 4,000 students. The simulations indicated that, even without parents intentionally exercising racial preferences, parents’ preferences for other attributes raised segregation.
A key takeaway from this study for policymakers and school officials wanting to increase integration is to reconsider how to highlight what a school offers to attract certain demographics, Ukanwa said.
“Schools can take into consideration what we learned from our work, that you might have different demographic groups who prioritize different things in terms of their school,” Ukanwa said. “It doesn’t mean that your school doesn’t answer to those. Maybe your school answers what they’re looking for. And so, you might want to take that into consideration how you market your school, how you publicize your school, to the local population. If you want to increase integration, you might want to emphasize different things that your school has to attract those people to the school.”
Jones said that considerations for future work included analyzing other demographics in this context as well, such as Asian households.
In the paper, the authors did acknowledge certain limitations to their study, including not accounting for school capacities, migration trends as parents move out of districts, and the U.S. racial wealth gap.
“When you’re doing social science research, there are so many moving pieces,” Turner said. “There are so many things that could impact anything, that you basically have to decide that you’re going to walk down one road for a very long time and then each thing is a step along that road. Part of the reason that those limitations exist is because we can’t do everything at the same time without understanding each building block. And so, the way we look at this is that this is a building block to understand basically how parents make decisions and how race and racism impact those decisions and how those decisions get propagated into the marketplace.”