New Study: Can School Choice Lead to Segregation?

Research by USC Marshall professor Kalinda Ukanwa suggests an unintended consequence of open school choice


September 28, 2022
Kalinda Ukanwa
Assistant Professor of Marketing Kalinda Ukanwa.

Although school choice is often touted as a strategy to desegregate schools, a new study led by Assistant Professor of Marketing Kalinda Ukanwa shows it may in fact drive segregation. 

The paper – co-authored with Aziza C. Jones of University of Wisconsin-Madison and Broderick L. Turner Jr., of Virginia Tech – was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). It examines how parents’ preferences on factors such as school ratings and commute times influence the racial makeup of schools.

“We found that school choice increases racial segregation even when parents do not factor racial demographics into their choice because racial groups have different priorities when it comes to school characteristics,” said Ukanwa.

To determine the effect of school choice at scale, Ukanwa and her research partners modeled school choice as an open market. The authors presented more than 1,600 Black and White parents with a set of fictional school choices intended to uncover underlying market segment preferences for characteristics including a school’s performance rating, teachers' experience, income, racial demographics, and commute time.

Impacts of unmitigated school choice 

Even when the authors controlled for an “own-race preference,” the model found that the fictional schools presented became more segregated because White parents and Black parents had differing priorities when selecting their ideal school. 

“If you simply expand school choice without first addressing some of these underlying differences in parents’ preferences, we’ll see increasingly segregated schools. But this can be mitigated by taking preferences into account."— Assistant Professor of Marketing Kalinda Ukanwa

For example, the authors found that school performance ratings in particular signal a school’s potential to alter a child’s socioeconomic status. As such, Black parents were more willing to forgo other school attributes such as short commutes or teacher experience for higher-rated schools. Meanwhile, White parents placed greater value on short commutes. Both groups, however, valued teacher experience. 

The study shows that even if parents do not intentionally seek schools where students are of their race, unmitigated school choice among these market segments can increase segregation because these groups are seeking schools that have different attributes.

The study’s model revealed that for every 3% of households that exercise school choice, an additional 564,000 U.S. children would need to leave their schools to offset the racial divide.

Read the full study here.

Accounting for Parental Preferences

The study’s authors recommended that schools take the preferences of racial groups into consideration when marketing schools to help prevent increased segregation. 

“If you simply expand school choice without first addressing some of these underlying differences in parents’ preferences, we’ll see increasingly segregated schools,” said Ukanwa. “But this can be mitigated by taking preferences into account. Schools aiming to increase integration could speak to unique preferences by marketing attributes such as convenience in getting to school, or the resources associated with performance such as advanced placement courses or pre-college programs.”  

About the Study

The researchers first conducted a series of experiments where parents rated the attributes they consider most important in a school, with consideration for their race and other demographic information. They then created a computer model that ran a scenario of how such preferences would play out in a district that had seven schools with a combined 4,000 students. The model reflected residential segregation that currently exists in U.S. neighborhoods.