SD Research Roundup: Barriers to integration via school choice

For the research roundups, I’ve wanted to focus on particular topics so that I can look at similarities/differences across different articles. (See recent posts on charter schools and school discipline.) Along those lines, this post focuses on a major (the major?) topic in contemporary education policy – school choice. Specifically:

  • Can school choice be used to promote school integration? What are the barriers to meaningful use of choice to further integration?

Two very recent articles shed light on these questions:

As I describe below, each identifies several barriers that get in the way of integration outcomes, and there’s some interesting overlap between the two. But, before I dive into the studies, I want to bring in some thoughts about choice from Gary Orfield, of many many school integration publications and, of course, the UCLA Civil Rights Project. In the book Educational Delusions?, co-edited with Erica Frankenberg, he lays out a useful way of thinking about choice in school integration. For anyone interested in this topic, the first two chapters there should be required reading – the language is extremely accessible, the history is nuanced, and his critique of market-oriented choice as applied to educational reform is thorough. Here’s what I want to focus on:

As he highlights throughout both chapters, “choice is described as something simple or clear” but “fundamentally different theories and philosophies are at war under its broad umbrella” (p. 62-63). We often use the word “choice” to refer to policies like vouchers and charters, but, also under the umbrella, are policies like magnet schools as well as voluntary choice among traditional public schools via open enrollment within a district or, in some cases, across district lines. These have been part of a war in theoretical debates about school integration and, much more importantly, in debates about actual policies and in court cases about what kinds of choice are permissible.

Orfield uses two categories to organize different choice policies:

  • Market theory – This approach “argues that if parents can choose to move their children, families and educators can create new schools exempt from regulation, they will not be trapped in inferior settings, and students will have much better opportunities” (p. 42). I’m thinking this one sounds familiar.
  • Integration theory – Proponents of this approach “[see] the root of inequality not in schools’ governance structure but in social and economic stratification perpetuated by schools that are segregated by race, class, and language” (p. 55). Choice, then, is “not an end in itself” (p. 55) but “is one strategy to decrease conflict and increase voluntary participation in programs that intentionally cross lines of race and class to foster successful integration” (p. 62).

Among many differences, this is central – choice according to the market theory is, by definition, unregulated, while choice according to the integration theory, by definition, requires regulation to ensure that schools become more integrated.

With that as the background, I want to switch over to the recent research. Each study looks at places that are actively trying to use choice for integration, essentially asking: Can choice be useful and what are the challenges associated with it? The results aren’t particularly inspiring.

Diversity for Whom? looks at how school districts pursue integration amid neighborhood gentrification, defined as: “white student increases in all contexts and a decrease in free- and reduced- price lunch students” (p. 9). Again, these are all cities that are trying to integrate via choice, specifically: Portland, OR; Denver, CO; Berkeley, CA; Cambridge, MA; and Dallas, TX. Like the second article in this post, the researchers intentionally chose cities with very different political contexts and different histories with integration, allowing them to see what challenges were consistent across contextual differences.

And, here’s what is consistent across the first study:

  • “all districts relied on enticing gentrifiers into school via specialized programs made available to families via school choice” (p. 22, emphasis added).

This is in contrast with, for example, a choice plan that may include regulations that try to ensure that the benefits of choice are distributed equitably or with other kinds of changes, like adjusting attendance boundaries. Instead, the article points out that “choice plans may in the end benefit the more advantaged parents” (p.17). Here are a few examples:

  • Some families have means to take full advantage of choice while others do not. For example, if the district offers choice, but not transportation, only the wealthy families – with access to transportation – will be able to fully exercise that choice.
  • Even when it works, it still may not work. In addition to benefiting advantaged families, choice has limits to its own success: the more the gentrifiers are enticed by diversity, the less diversity there is. I’m seeing this happen in my hometown of Somerville, MA, which borders Cambridge, one of the districts studied here.
  • Segregation persists. Ultimately, the authors observe: “the districts as a whole still remain intensely segregated, despite the creation of pockets of integration or near-integration” (p. 22) in sought-after schools.

These findings complement recent research that I won’t have space to discuss in this post – see here for an example.

What is diverse enough? looks at choice differently, leading to different findings; though, there’s a thread that connects the two. Specifically, it explores the challenges faced by “intentionally diverse” charters. Although certainly separate, this paper builds off a recent Century Foundation report that attempted to identify the amount of charter schools that are racially “diverse by design” as defined by whether “the largest racial or ethnic group in the school comprised no more than 70 percent of the student body.” The Century Foundation found that these charters compose about 2% of all charters nationally or about 5,700 schools total.

Meanwhile, the study I’m reviewing here focuses on a few “diverse by design” charters in Minneapolis-St. Paul and New Orleans to understand the challenges they face in living up to this mission. One major theme – marketing and recruitment is difficult for schools and took a considerable amount of time. A few details from the article, which is available in full text:

  • There were no real political incentives to recruit a diverse student enrollment, and existing state policy often acted as a disincentive. For example, accountability pressures made it risky for school administrators to recruit low-income and/or special needs students.
  • Understandably, schools were not well-oiled marketing machines. Based on interviews with school leaders, the authors note that “many of the recruitment and marketing decisions made by school leaders were more serendipitous or reactive, rather than purposeful or strategic” (p. 17). Instead of developing formal recruitment plans, schools often defaulted to recruiting through existing networks and word-of-mouth, which was not conducive to diversity. Of course, school leaders had many many other things to do.
  • Beyond general agreement over the “happy talk” of diversity, schools often had different opinions about what diversity meant. This was especially challenging when “agreement about the value of diversity” came up against “harder conversations about racial justice” and against the accountability pressures noted above. As in the “diversity for whom?” article, the authors of “what is diverse enough?” found that recruitment challenges “[reshaped] the school’s approach to recruitment and marketing in ways that might ask the school to prioritize certain features of curriculum to appeal to more advantaged families” (p. 19).

The main argument from the second article: Without incentives – and indeed in the face of disincentives – recruitment for diversity rested on “a fragile foundation for integration” (p. 20). Mainly, integration goals rested on the sheer “goodwill and missions of individual schools” and the always dwindling availability of time, energy and resources for something – specifically: advertising – that schools are ill-equipped to do in the first place.

Together, these articles illuminate an important trend: Places that are using choice to integrate often apply the market theory to drive integration, not the more regulated integration theory, even if they’re actually going for the latter. And, when schools are forced to sell, they sell to white/wealthy families. The dual-language program that may help your kid get into college, for example. The kind of things that entice gentrifiers. Orfield demonstrates this strongly in Educational Delusions, and it’s backed up by more recent research and reporting: the unregulated market theory has never been an effective approach to school integration and has very often accelerated school resegregation.

I’ll wrap up with two quick thoughts. First, there’s a practical issue – Courts have placed dramatic limits on the extent to which districts can use choice for integration. Given these restrictions, districts that start with the integration theory in mind may understandably slip into an approach that more resembles an unregulated market. There is a lot of confusion about what is acceptable, and important guidelines were recently revoked by the Trump Administration. Districts may likely also worry about legal or political challenges – like this one –  if they try something new.

So, in the absence of any kind of government leadership on this, it is important for the civil rights community to generate conversation about the kinds of protections that are permissible and to promote these policies. The second article, for example, notes a number of strategies for this, including: requiring a plan for diversity recruitment as part of a charter school’s authorization or using a “weighted lottery” system that holds seats for low-income and/or minoritized students.

Lastly, though, there’s a larger issue that has fueled the rise of the market theory – that choice has come to be seen as an end in itself. So-called “freedom of choice” was initially used in the aftermath of Brown as a vehicle for segregation. And, this purpose was explicitly part of the massive resistance movement, including the development of segregation academies that relied on the use of publicly funded vouchers. That legacy continues today, though it is perhaps (?) not as explicit.

Then, choice advocates like Milton Friedman were able to claim choice as a way to provide educational opportunity to the disadvantaged, but have been let off the hook for the many cases where choice has accelerated resegregation. And, now, in many places, the word choice itself is so widely accepted that it’s come to be viewed as an end in itself, literally described as a panacea by its advocates. As civil rights advocates try to push this giant rock back in the opposite direction, it seems like this is one place where we can begin to build our case – by insisting that choice be viewed as a mechanism to accomplish a goal and holding market advocates accountable (in public dialogue etc) when their policies fall short.

This is obviously a big effort that may not happen any time soon. It involves, among other things, understanding the barriers presented by current accountability policies within schools and socio-economic factors outside of schools. These articles are useful in highlighting these barriers, with evidence from a number of major American cities. It feels only fitting to wrap up with a little inspiration from Orfied who reminds us that “theories have long lives” and “even as Friedman could develop his theory at a time when there was no significant support for it, theories of integration can be further developed and perhaps pursued in indirect ways now – and more directly in the future if the law changes back.”

Peter started the SD Notebook in January 2017, and he joined the Center for Education and Civil Rights (CECR) at Penn State University in October 2018. CECR helped manage content for this post.  

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