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Using choice to encourage integrated schools

Last week, my colleague Sarah Szurpicki wrote about how school choice policies in Michigan have led to further racial segregation in Michigan schools. This is obviously not good, as racially integrated classrooms produce all sorts of pro-social benefits. And to the extent that race correlates with socioeconomic status, the resulting economic segregation in our schools is an even worse byproduct of our school choice policies. However, it turns out that with the right design, school choice may also be our only hope for integrating our schools.

Decades of research have demonstrated that, controlling for student background, the composition of a school’s student body is more strongly related to achievement than any other school factor. In schools of concentrated poverty the disadvantages and stress associated with living in poverty are compounded, and school becomes much more about managing the manifestation of those conditions than delivering rigorous education. When low-income students are given the opportunity to attend middle-class schools, on the other hand, they benefit from peers who are on average more academically focused, strong and stable teachers, and more academic and enrichment resources. Nearly every study evaluating the impact of integrated schools has found dramatic increases in student achievement for low-income students, with no drop in achievement for their middle-class peers.

So how do we integrate our schools?

In the Metro-Detroit region in particular, the task seems pretty daunting. The border between the Detroit and Grosse Pointe school districts is the most segregating in the country, separating a district with a 50% poverty rate from a district with a 6.5% poverty rate. In Detroit, almost 80% of all students attend a high-poverty school, but across the entire metro region, only a quarter of students do.

To integrate this highly segregated region, we have three options.

Option 1: Housing integration

First is school integration through housing integration, with the hope that integrated schools follow integrated neighborhoods. The oft-cited example of this type of effort is Montgomery County, MD, where an inclusionary zoning plan significantly improved residential integration, and the resulting school integration led to significant reductions in the poor/non-poor achievement gap in math and English.

Option 2: District consolidation and school assignment

The second option is integration through district consolidation and school assignment. The Wake County (North Carolina) school district merged the urban Raleigh school district with surrounding suburban districts, and assigned students such that no school was over 40 percent low-income.

While these first two options are the ideal, they’re generally deemed politically out of reach. Even the successful district consolidation and student assignment plan in Wake ran into stiff opposition that led to the dismantling of their integration system. And residential integration often feels near-impossible, with segregation by income only getting worse, and limited tools to attack the problem (Michigan, for instance has a law that essentially bans inclusionary zoning, something we’ll address in future posts).

Option 3: School choice? I’ll explain

This leaves us with one final lever to pull to encourage school integration. And oddly enough, it’s school choice. While recent research demonstrates that school choice has had a segregating effect locally, examples from elsewhere show that intelligently designed choice policies, with significant state involvement, can have the opposite effect.

The example of Hartford, CT, as covered on an episode of This American Life, presents a good case study. As part of the settlement of a civil-rights suit filed against the state in the mid 90s, the state of Connecticut agreed to a voluntary racial integration program (the suit was about racial, not economic, segregation, though researchers often conflate the two) in which the state would provide funding for two coordinated integration initiatives.

The first was the creation of high-quality magnet schools in Hartford to attract white students from suburban districts. The magnets offered state of the art resources like planetariums, free pre-K, and engaging themes, and were marketed like crazy to suburban parents. Simultaneously, the state offered incentives suburban districts to enroll more black students from Hartford, and paid for their transportation.

Combining the magnet schools with the incentives to suburban “receiving” schools, the effort was a remarkable success, with the percentage of Hartford students attending integrated schools rising from 11% at the start of the program to 50% today.

While still quite difficult, one can imagine how something like this type of “voluntary integration” could work in Detroit. High-quality magnets built around cultural institutions (like the Grand Rapids Museum School), could attract their fair share of suburban parents that work downtown. And more Detroit parents may choose a suburban district over their neighborhood school if provided with information and transportation. But we can’t just leave it to “choice” and the “market.” We need to control choice to some extent, provide nudges and incentives, and try to encourage integration. Because as our current policies show, integration is unlikely to happen on its own.



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Patrick Cooney

Patrick Cooney is a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future's mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy.

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  1. […] In the wake of reports that the state’s Schools of Choice program promotes racial segregation, one policy analyst offers a roadmap for desegregating Detroit schools. […]

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