School Choice & Charters

Studies Cite Segregation In Private Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 10, 2002 3 min read
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Students in private schools are more likely to attend racially segregated classrooms than students in public schools are, according to a new study by University of Arkansas researchers.

The study, released late last month, reaches the opposite conclusion of research published in 1998 by Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York City. Mr. Greene’s study found that students in private schools were less likely to attend racially segregated classrooms than their counterparts in public schools.

Also last month, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University reported that black students at private schools on average attended schools at which 34 percent of students are white, while on average 78 percent of students in private schools are white.

The Arkansas study, “How Might School Choice Affect Racial Integration in Schools” is available from researcher Gary W. Ritter’s University of Arkansas Web site.

The Harvard study, “Private School Racial Enrollments and Segregation,” is available from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

By comparison, blacks receiving a public education on average attended schools with enrollments that are 33 percent white, while 64 percent of students in public schools are white.

The Harvard study, which is based on data collected during the 1997-98 school year, concludes that black-white segregation is greater in private schools than in public schools. However, researchers found that segregation between Latinos and non-Hispanic whites is lower in private schools than in public schools.

For the University of Arkansas study, the lead researcher, Gary W. Ritter, an assistant professor of education policy at the university at Fayetteville, tested the conclusions that Mr. Greene reached, using similar methodology.

Using 1992 data about 12th graders, Mr. Greene had calculated the national average of minority students in the classroom to be 25.6 percent and considered classrooms with racial compositions that were within 10 percent of the national average to be integrated. He found that 37 percent of private school students attended integrated classrooms, while only 18 percent of public school students did. He discussed the findings in an Education Week Commentary in 2000. (“Why School Choice Can Promote Integration,” April 12, 2000.)

Using 1998 data about kindergartners, Mr. Ritter found the national average of minority students in classrooms to be 37.4 percent and also considered classrooms with racial compositions within 10 percent of the national average to be integrated. His findings revealed that only 9.4 percent of private school students were in integrated classrooms, while 13.5 percent of public school students were.

Ends of the Spectrum

One reason the two studies likely differed so greatly in their conclusions was that they looked at children at a different point in time and on opposite ends of the grade span, Mr. Ritter said.

“The more recent sample is more reflective of current racial dynamics in schools,” he argued.

But Mr. Greene said that “looking to kindergarten won’t be representative of the racial composition” of classrooms in other grades because so many white parents enroll their children in private kindergartens but move them to public schools for 1st grade.

Mr. Ritter said that perhaps the most striking finding in his study is that neither public nor private schools had more than 20 percent of kindergartners in integrated classrooms.

“When families choose schools, they also look at other factors” besides a school’s racial makeup, noted Joe McTighe, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, based in Germantown, Md. “Is the school safe and orderly? Does it set high standards? Are the teachers caring and demanding? Does it provide students with the skills they need to make it in life?”

He added: “The real question is, ‘How can society improve the chances of minority children getting a decent education?’”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Studies Cite Segregation In Private Schools

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