Much has been written about the role that school choice plays in school segregation. The increase in policies allowing parents to choose among schools coupled with the lack of diversity controls in admissions have contributed to the resegregation of U.S. schools to levels not seen in 50 years. However, we don’t have to accept increasing racial and class divisions as inevitable in 21st-century America. And there is particular opportunity for integration in rapidly gentrifying cities, where the number of white and well-off families with school-age children is growing.
Here we outline three myths about white parents and school choice from our work as New York City education researchers and our firsthand experience as white parents who have chosen schools in the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens. We suggest that public-policy officials have wrong ideas about what a significant number of white parents want for their child’s education. Many prefer racially diverse school settings. When public policy fails to offer integrated school choice options, this leads to self-fulfilling prophecies tied to race and class and a new generation of schoolchildren afflicted with race and class biases.
Myth #1: White parents always choose the whitest and wealthiest school option
Researchers have documented that in quickly gentrifying cities across the country and internationally, white and affluent parents tend to avoid sending their child to school with majority low-income, immigrant, or Black and Latinx children. School choice encourages them to opt out of their traditional public schools for higher status, whiter, and wealthier options: academically screened public schools (for instance, ones with gifted education programs), public schools in gentrified neighborhoods, certain charter schools with special themes, or private schools.
What is often overlooked is that some advantaged parents “opt in” to their neighborhood schools to expose their children to diversity, support the democratic nature of public education, and have their school nearby. As a recentPew Research Center poll showed, 58 percent of white adults agreed that increased racial and ethnic diversity in the United States makes the country a better place to live. Offering parents more racially and socioeconomically diverse and integrated school options with a focus on social-emotional learning instead of competitive academics would appeal to their intuition about the moral importance of diversity in an increasingly multicultural country.
Myth #2: White parents want only academically selective schools
Evidence also suggests that public school officials in gentrifying cities, like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, think that all white parents want academically selective schools and cultivate a competitive school choice system to keep those families from leaving. Cities are also where you can often find gifted and talented programs that facilitate thesegregation of white and Asian students from the rest. Faced with declining enrollment because of COVID-19-related disruptions, the New York City mayor and schools chancellor reportedly believed that expanding the G&T program and reinstating academic-admissions screens at the middle school level would attract advantaged (and white) parents back to the system. Officials added 100 gifted seats in kindergarten and initiated a “top performer” program for elementary students. We believe these moves will add to the segregation in the larger system.
Maintaining segregated schools puts communities and the future for all of us at risk.
Yet, there is counterevidence that some advantaged, white parents would prefer schools with noncompetitive admissions over schools that screen and segregate students based on test scores, grades, or other academic measures. In a recent study of Brooklyn parents, researchers found support for a “weighted lottery” that gives students from low-income households priority for some seats in a school to ensure racial and socioeconomic diversity. Many of the parents saw the lack of competitive screens as a positive because it led to less stress for their children. Research conducted by one of us (Roda) has also suggested that schools where leaders have creatively held the line on maintaining racially and ethnically integrated enrollments are popular with white families as evidenced by long waiting lists. But such schools are few and far between.
Myth #3: White parents choose schools without regard for the impact of their choices on others
Few decisions parents make have a greater impact on other people’s children than their school choice. When advantaged, white parents flock to certain schools or programs,they signal to other parents that the school is “good,” which influences how others choose. By the same token, they signal that the neighborhood public school they have left behind is “bad,” spurring even greater isolation by race and class.
School integration has proved to have a monumentally positive impact for Black and Latinx students later in life. Black and Latinx students who experienced integrated schools are more likely to have higher incomes, better health, and are less likely to live in poverty. A new study shows that making friendships across socioeconomic classes is key to reducing poverty. Maintaining segregated schools puts communities and the future for all of us at risk.
In choosing schools where the families are largely white and wealthy, white parents often make the argument that they are simply choosing the school that’s best for their child. But, in fact, their child misses out on the benefits of being part of a minority.Employers consistently say they’re looking for critical thinkers, good communicators, and people with the ability to work with those from different backgrounds. Diverse classrooms where white students are not in the majority promote these qualities, including for well-off white students.
Policymakers and school officials must design more equitable school choice plans that promote integration through controlled choice with weighted lotteries; geography-based enrollment policies, such as magnet schools that break the ties between neighborhood and school segregation; and phasing out separate and unequal gifted or other academically selective programs within schools. Officials can play to parents’ recognition that their school choices do, in fact, have social impact.
We don’t expect all parents to “do the right thing” by turning away from schools that do not prioritize integration by race and class. But we do encourage parents to talk to their neighbors and friends about whether they want to be part of the problem or the solution. It is the role of government to balance the rights of individuals with the well-being of the larger community. That is why parents must advocate for more racially and socioeconomically diverse options.
If we are going to save public schools, a foundation of our democracy, we must demand investment in them, eliminate efforts that create competitive markets in education, and directly confront segregation and individual school choices that keep students divided instead of united.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as Myths About White Parents And School Choice