In Wisconsin, parents have a lot of choices about where to send their children to school. Open Enrollment allows families to switch between public school districts. Parental choice programs let some families enroll in private schools, using taxpayer-funded vouchers.
How do parents decide on the right school? And does racial integration play into those decisions?
New research from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education doesn’t look specifically at Wisconsin, but it sheds light on the relationship between parental choice and school integration. The report is co-authored by Richard Weissbourd, director of Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project, and Eric Torres, a PhD student in the education school.
“When you look at the legal environment, it’s disfavoring school integration,” Weissbourd said. “So it became clear that if we’re going to make progress on school integration, then school districts and parents have a big role to play.”
The researchers surveyed more than 2,000 parents across the country and conducted focus groups. They then compared the survey results with other studies about school segregation, parental choice, and the benefits of integration in education.
The surveys showed high levels of support for school integration among all demographic groups. But Torres says even though parents favor racially diverse schools, that often doesn’t translate into action.
“In principle, parents are expressing that they want integration,” Torres said. “However, from other research, we know that in landscapes where parents have unrestricted school choice, the schools tend to become more segregated, not less. Which provides some evidence that while they say they want school integration, it’s not enough to get them making integrative choices.”
Torres and Weissbourd’s survey provides one possible answer about why parents’ choices may intensify segregation. When asked which criteria is most important in choosing a school, parents ranked academic quality and school safety much higher than integration.
“When they are making decisions about where to enroll their children, they’re letting other priorities come first,” Torres said.
Based on other studies, Torres and Weissbourd say that parents are often making decisions about schools based on limited or "distorted" information.
“Looking at average test scores at a school is not a good proxy for integration,” Weissbourd said. “The other thing I think is going on is that white, advantaged parents tend to talk to other parents in their bubble …they don’t get diverse perspectives.”
Weissbourd encourages parents to visit schools and look at other factors, like student growth outcomes instead of test scores, when making school decisions. He says, school districts shouldn’t limit parental choice, but if leaders want to encourage integration, they should do a better job of giving parents information, "lifting up the strengths" of diverse schools and connecting parents "outside their bubble."
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