Public School Choice and Racial Sorting: An Examination of Charter Schools in Indianapolis by Marc L. Stein

The impact of public school choice through the development of charter schools, on the sorting of students along racial, class and ability lines has been a fundamental issue in school choice research and policy debates. Early concern was that the creation of charter schools would lead to “cream skimming” of whiter, wealthier and higher achieving students from the traditional public school system. Over time the concern has shifted as research has highlighted that on average charters appear to be enrolling higher proportions of minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged students than traditional schools in their local context. In a recently published article “Public School Choice and Racial Sorting: An Examination of Charter Schools in Indianapolis” I look at this issue by examining how racial diversity changes for students who switch into a charter school from the traditional public school system in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Using an individual student level dataset compiled by the National Center on School Choice I was able to identify a sample of students who were enrolled in a charter school in Indianapolis during the 2006-07 school year and track them back to the traditional public school they were enrolled in immediately prior to enrolling in the charter school. This type of data is needed to accurately describe changes in diversity as students move between sectors because there is significant variation in student demographics at the school level that is often obscured when examining the issue at higher levels of aggregation (e.g. comparing charters as a group to surrounding school district or metropolitan area) and can complicate the drawing of valid inferences about the relationship between public school choice and racial sorting. The paper demonstrates this point by showing that in the aggregate, a comparison of racial composition of sending and receiving schools shows no large differences – it appears that students are switching to schools of similar racial composition. However when broken out by individual student race we can see a pattern where black and white students are moving to schools that enroll higher percentages of their own race than their previous schools. The result is that students are moving to charter schools that are less racially diverse than their prior school. Interestingly these patterns are not seen among students who switch between traditional public schools within the Indianapolis Public School System (IPS).

The paper concludes by examining changes in student demographics in Indianapolis charter schools over time. This is important in that while there appears to be decreases in racial diversity in the aggregate for individual students, there may be significant variability across schools. Schools in my sample showed three main patterns in changes in racial demographics from their opening year through 2009; schools that increased black enrollment and lost white enrollment, schools that lost black students but increased white and Latino enrollment, and schools that maintained stable enrollments across racial groups. While the current paper is unable to further examine these patterns, a few salient points emerged. First, charters that opened with intensely isolated racial enrollments (90 – 95% same race), whether white or black, remained intensely isolated over the time period. Further, initial enrollments appear to be related to changes in racial demographics whereby schools that opened with enrollments of a single race in higher proportion than IPS (e.g. more black or white than IPS) tended to become more racially isolated over time. Finally, very few schools exhibit enrollments that could be considered diverse in the relative proportions of racial groups enrolled in the school.

The analyses presented in this paper demonstrates that the process of charter school choice in Indianapolis may lead to higher degrees of racial isolation and less diversity within schools than is present in the underlying process of student school transfers in the traditional public school sector and over time schools may be moving toward greater consolidation into racially isolated groups. While these findings are potentially helpful in thinking about racial sorting implications of public school choice, they raise several questions that descriptive comparisons cannot illuminate. Foremost among them is the need to understand the process that generated the observed sorting. Is the process more a function of individual agency and preference for racially homogenous schools or are there underlying disparities in how different racial groups enter and proceed through the school choice process? How do systemic factors and school based enrollment processes combine with individual agency to produce racially isolated schools?

We’ve explored some of these questions in previous and on-going work based on interviews with parents at a sample of charter schools in Indianapolis. We’ve found that many parents appear to be actively choosing schools from a remarkably small choice set. Often this choice set is composed of only one school – the school they eventually enrolled in – or at most a small number of perceived viable options. Parents generally arrived at their chosen school through a largely linear process that began with the ruling out of large segments of the broader educational market of schools (e.g. ruling out all traditional public schools based on prior negative experiences, ruling out the private sector due to financial constraints) followed by the identification of a particular school through the parent’s social network of family, friends and work colleagues. Further, a majority of parents in our sample indicated that outside of recommendations from social network informants they did not consult publically available sources of information (e.g. information from the Mayor’s office, information available on school report cards) about the performance of the schools they were considering or even in identifying potential options. Thus to the extent that social networks are racially isolated, then the results of school choice may lead to racially isolated schools. Taken together this picture of the choice process requires us to consider whether improvements in the traditional modes of providing information to parents (e.g. printed choice guides, websites) alone can substantively lead to more informed parents and by extension, expansion of parents’ choice sets that include more diverse schools. This reveals a need to find innovative ways to tap into social networks through trusted community members that could be potentially leveraged into improvements in information usage among parents in school choice decisions.

Racial isolation in school choice systems raises vitally important questions, which defy simple answers, about what we value as a society and how we should organize ourselves to realize those values. The sorting of students into schools is likely to be multifaceted and may be determined at the intersection of how parents perceive and understand the marketplace of schools and their place in that market and the processes schools employ to fill enrollments. Future research needs to examine how both the demand and supply side processes work together in a complex system to place students in schools. This kind of research has the potential to add much needed nuance to the often ideologically tinged debates about school choice and the consequences for individuals, schools and the educational system.

Marc L. Stein is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at the Johns Hopkins University

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