On the educational choice battle field is a fight over whether school voucher programs, charter schools, or generically speaking — school choice, increases instances of racial segregation.

Choice advocates maintain allowing families to select an educational setting that best suits their child regardless of zip code restrictions effectively decreases racial segregation. “Your zip code shouldn’t determine your destiny,” is their rallying cry. No longer subjected to their respective economic zones, choice programs naturally increase educational equity for enrolled students. The free-market approach to education requires schools compete at risk of diminishing enrollment and subsequently, funding.

Meanwhile, opponents of school choice programs suggest the allowance of choice increases racial segregation and further encourages demographic shifts like “white flight.”

So who’s right?

There are studies in abundance examining this issue, most of which fail to consider crucial variables. Studies that conclude choice increases segregation make the simple mistake of assuming that because a white family chooses a predominantly white school, regardless of the reason why they chose the school, that their selection was based either entirely or at least in large part on race. Their solution is not the free-market derivative of their pro-school choice counterparts, but a theoretical one impossible to enact — let everyone go to the best schools.

One of the most comprehensive studies on the matter was conducted by The Brookings Institute. Matthew M. Chingos found the data simply does not support the “charter schools push segregation” mantra. Examining a multitude of variables, Chingos wrote:

A naïve examination of the relationship between this measure of (de)segregation and the percentage of students enrolled in charter schools appears to show that the critics are right: more choice is associated with minority students attending less diverse schools. For the 2010-11 school year, a 10-percentage-point increase in charter enrollment is associated with a decline of 16 percentage points in minority students’ exposure to non-minority students. A similar but weaker relationship exists along class lines (as measured by free lunch eligibility).

Of course, this relationship ignores the fact that charters tend to locate in areas that serve large shares of disadvantaged students and members of minority groups. As a result, this simple correlation tells us nothing about whether charters increase segregation or just tend to locate in areas where the schools are already segregated. This is the same methodological flaw that compromised the findings of the UCLA study.

A better approach to the question of whether choice increases segregation is to look at changes over time. Did areas that saw large increases in choice experience larger increases in segregation than areas that saw smaller increases in choice? This kind of analysis does not conclusively measure the causal effect of choice on segregation, but by examining the same locales over time it represents a clear improvement over the cruder approach of comparing different locales at the same point in time. For example, it takes into account any unmeasured factors, such as the degree of residential segregation, to the extent that those factors remain constant over time.

He concluded:

…the results consistently indicated no meaningful relationship between choice and segregation.

The lack of any consistent relationship between charter enrollment and segregation does not eliminate the possibility that such a relationship exists, but suggests that it is unlikely. For there to be a relationship, it would have to be the case that counties where charter enrollment increased experienced an increase in segregation as a result but then adopted policies (or experienced other changes) that counteracted the increase in segregation. In my view, that is not a very plausible explanation for these results.

As Chingos mentions, the vast variety of school choice programs means there are programs that result in increased integration while poorly written legislation may inadvertently push segregation. Even so, the latter is the exception and not the rule, as the data indicates.

No one in the business of choice advocacy promotes segregation. In fact, the goal is expanded access to top-notch education for students who would otherwise find themselves geographically or economically prohibited.

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