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NCSPE Looks at School Choice and Racial Diversity

The National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) teamed up with the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University to present a day-long seminar on School Choice and Racial Diversity. Presenters were asked to discuss the question: Under what conditions does school choice improve and sustain racial diversity, and under what conditions does choice undermine it?

"For this purpose," Henry M. Levin, Director of NCSPE, said, "we have commissioned six splendid papers to inform the discussion, as well as a panel that will follow the presentation of the papers to see if we can get some closure on the question."

The morning session explored Access, Integration and School Choice. Amy Stuart Wells, a TC graduate who is now at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and TC Professor Robert Crain spoke about their research on school choice and desegregation efforts and magnet schools. Stuart Wells is currently a Visiting Professor and the Julius and Rosa Sachs Lecturer at TC.

In looking at desegregation programs that transferred students from the cities to the suburbs, offering suburban students the opportunity to attend city-based magnet schools, Stuart Wells said, "For the most part, desegregation is taking place on the white students' cultural and social 'turf,' which means many of the unwritten rules about conduct and who is 'cool' are greatly skewed in favor of the white students."

Professor Robert Crain, addressed the issue of controlled choice via magnet schools (as opposed to mandatory desegregation). In order to have a successful controlled choice plan, he said, districts must use various ethnic channels to inform parents about the schools, have a good transportation system in place, and provide admission to magnet schools regardless of test scores or family background. While there are only a few studies that show success in controlled choice districts, a 1988 study found that when controlled choice was established in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the results were an almost perfect racial balance in all schools, stabilized enrollment of white students, and dynamic growth and improvement of the schools.

More research on charter schools was offered by Carol Ascher and Nathalis Wamba of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University. Ascher and Wamba noted that while some charter schools may have developed educational programs that result in desegregation without regulations, they may or may not be educationally sound. Some schools may also be providing high quality education to low-income children of color in segregated environments.

In his presentation on Choosing Integration, Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, suggested assessing the effects of integration by comparing the racial composition of individual schools to the racial composition of the broader community where schools are located. "Choice promotes integration because traditional public schools assign students to schools based on where they live, thereby replicating and reinforcing racially segregated housing patterns," Greene noted.

Greene added that most parents do not mind if schools are integrated as long as the schools provide a quality education for their children that will provide them with economically useful skills and socially appropriate behavior and values. "That is," he said, "most parents are largely indifferent to integration as a goal in itself, but if parents, unconstrained by housing, are allowed to choose schools in which they have confidence, the net effect is likely to be a marked increase in school integration."

In his research on Racial Segregation and the Private/Public School Choice, Robert Fairlie reported that there is a definite pattern of racial sorting between private and public school systems, particularly in the upper grades. This often occurs in response to the racial composition of schools. Lower-income levels among black and Hispanic families also lead to those groups being underrepresented in private schools. When they do attend private school, black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend schools that are more integrated than those that white students attend.

Fairlie believes that vouchers could lead to both increased segregation and decreased segregation. By increasing opportunities for families to enroll their children in homogenous schools, segregation may increase. Yet, reducing differences in income with vouchers may also lead to a shrinking of the gap existing between those who attend private school and those who do not. Only through evaluation of large-scale, long-term experimental programs will a definitive answer be available," he said.

The day ended with a panel discussion moderated by TC Professor Jay Heubert and featuring panelists Gary Orfield of Harvard University, Janice Petrovich of the Ford Foundation, and Roslyn Mickelson of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Orfield also made the point that since the available data on which systems work best is not conclusive, there should be more emphasis on comparing American choice systems to those abroad.

Petrovich said, "Choice by itself does not increase the likelihood that all children will have access to a good education until good schools are the norm. Choice by itself will not increase the likelihood of integration, but, based on evidence here and overseas, may exacerbate segregation based on socioeconomic status."

She explained that it is also important to look at what else is going on within the schools. "A school will be designated as desegregated," she said, "but when you look inside you will find that it is highly segregated by track."
Yet she stressed that desegregation as a goal is important with research showing that cognitive processes are stimulated by diverse learning environments and with businesses spending fortunes on diversity training. "We know that the longer children have been in desegregated schools, the more likely they are to cross racial and ethnic backgrounds and they cope far better in a diverse work force," she said.

Heubert, as the moderator, challenged the panelists and those at the conference by saying, "It is too easy for us as academics to say we need more research," he said. "Not because we don't but because, in many school districts, trains are leaving the station now with voucher plans, magnet schools and charter schools." He added that, "Without hearing from us, [policy makers] will go forward without us."

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