School choice and segregation

July 12, 2017

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

By Greg Forster

If you want to make sure schools are segregated, the quickest and easiest way to do it is to force families into schools based on their ZIP codes. Segregation flourishes under the government monopoly—both because schools are tied to ZIP codes and because power brokers draw the attendance lines. School choice is actually the only education policy with a serious hope of reducing segregation in schools.

The accusation that school choice will increase ethnic segregation in schools, after a long period on the rhetorical back-burner (during the age of test-score obsessions), has suddenly returned to the forefront of public debate. That’s no surprise, given rising levels of ethnic tension and polarization. But it remains as false as it ever was; school choice is actually the only education policy with a serious hope of reducing segregation in schools. The triggering event for the recent surge in attention to this accusation was a report released in March by the Century Foundation, claiming that “studies,” “evidence,” and “data” show that choice will increase segregation. The report’s actual attention to empirical studies was scanty and misleading. Its claims were mostly based on the author’s speculative theories about what choices we might expect parents to make. Her characterization of the studies, when she deigned to discuss them, was wrong; real researchers quickly debunked it. No doubt that’s why the report seems to have disappeared down the memory hole. But now lots of people are talking about choice and segregation.

For the record, 10 empirical studies have examined the relationship between school choice and ethnic segregation. The methods differ, and not all studies allow us to look at all possible questions. Nonetheless, all these studies provide some useful information about what’s going on when parents exercise choice.

Nine of those studies found that school choice provided a more integrated classroom experience. One found no visible difference. No empirical study has ever found that a school choice program made ethnic segregation worse.

Click to EnlargeIn fact, that body of research is the reason it’s been a while since we heard much talk about segregation in the debate over school choice. I remember hearing this talking point much more in the early 2000s, when fewer of these studies had been done. As the evidence piled up, the talking point went away.

It’s worth asking why the data show what they show. The basic claim of choice opponents has always been that if we give parents a choice, they will choose segregation. Families have to be forced into schools based on their ZIP code, not allowed to seek out what will serve their children’s unique needs, because they’re racist. This might be a subtle or even unconscious bias, but whether it’s overt or covert, that’s the direction parents will take us in if we let them.

Surprisingly, the strongest counterargument is not “parents aren’t racist.” (Or, to be fair, “parents aren’t racist enough for this to be a problem.”) Some do think the danger of racism is simply overblown, and that is one plausible way to explain the positive data on choice programs and segregation. I used to be satisfied with that explanation myself. As I have considered it further, however, I have grown to think there’s more to the story.

There’s a critical fact we have to consider before we evaluate the merits of the “parents are racist” argument. If you want to make sure schools are super-segregated, the quickest and easiest way to do it is to force families into schools based on their ZIP codes! And that is why our public schools are in fact super-segregated, and are likely to remain that way until we get school choice.

Americans are highly segregated by residence. Anglo people tend to live in Anglo neighborhoods, black people in black neighborhoods, Hispanic people in Hispanic neighborhoods, and so on. If you force people to go to school where they live, you can’t escape the trap of segregated schools.

The causes of residential segregation are various. Part of it is discrimination in the housing market. And part of it is a real preference of buyers, conscious or unconscious, to live among similar people. Moreover, these two factors reinforce one another; real estate agents will sometimes not bother showing buyers homes in the “wrong” neighborhoods, not for invidious reasons, but simply because they anticipate closing a quicker sale if they stick to the “right” neighborhoods. (I know this from experience because on one occasion my wife and I caught our real estate agent excluding homes in black neighborhoods from our house search results.)

However, while the causes of residential segregation are complex, the result is simple. Americans overwhelmingly live in ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods. Since there seems to be no end in sight for residential segregation, there is also no end in sight for highly segregated public schools.

In fact, it gets worse than that. Residential segregation would cause school segregation by itself. But it gets a lot of help from how the powerful people who run the government school monopoly draw the school district and “attendance zone” lines.

Because we have a government school monopoly, which neighborhoods are served by which schools is necessarily a political question. It’s settled by powerful people who care about power. Which isn’t good news for desegregation.

Don’t believe me? Do a Google Image search for “Manhattan by ethnicity” (better yet, use the New York City ethnicity map from data visualizer Eric Fischer’s Flickr page) and then “Manhattan school district map.” Compare the images. See how the school district lines are drawn right along the ethnic lines?

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence. Everyone knows ethnic power games aren’t an important factor in municipal politics.

When we see this, and only when we see this, are we are in a position to evaluate the claim that school choice will increase segregation because parents are racist. To whatever extent parents are racist, consciously or unconsciously, the government monopoly system is perfectly designed to cater to those racist preferences. Segregation flourishes under the government monopoly, both because schools are tied to ZIP codes and because power brokers draw the attendance lines.

So the strongest argument for choice is not “parents aren’t racist.” It’s “under the government monopoly, segregation happens by default, regardless of what parents prefer; only school choice creates the opportunity for integration.”

Choice does a better job of producing integrated schools because it weakens the association between schools and (heavily segregated) ZIP codes. If parents have a choice of where to send their kids to school, their primary concerns will be educational—strong academics, good character, school safety. To the extent that parents in general are making choices beyond their neighborhood boundaries, that’s going to shake up patterns of segregation. Moreover, if parents feel confident in the schools that they’re sending their kids to, that creates a feeling of safety which, we can hope, will defuse anxieties about integration.

Maybe you think parents are very racist and maybe you think they’re not. But we can all agree that parents have many preferences, among which racism (to the extent that it exists) is only one factor. A government monopoly simply enforces segregation upon schools, which is why public schools are so segregated. Choice opens the door for other options, and parents have lots of motivations to seek them.

Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He is the author of six books, including John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and the co-editor of three books, including John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness. He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.