Unmitigated school choice increases racial segregation even when parents do not take race into account, according to research co-authored by Virginia Tech Assistant Professor of Marketing Broderick Turner.

Traditionally, children are assigned to a public school according to where they live. School choice programs enable parents to choose the schools their children will attend for elementary and secondary education, be it a charter school, private school, magnet school, home school, or a public school different than the one assigned.

Advocates argue that school choice programs improve educational outcomes by expanding opportunity and access for historically disadvantaged students. This includes a reduction in school segregation by sending children to schools outside of segregated neighborhoods and districts.

However, according to a recent study co-authored by Turner, who is a member of Harvard Business School’s inaugural cohort of the Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society (BiGS) Visiting Fellows, and Kalinda Ukanwa of the University of Southern California and Aziza Jones of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, unmitigated school choice policies can result in an increase in school segregation. Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study, “School Choice Increases Racial Segregation Even When Parents Do Not Care About Race,” demonstrates that school choice drives segregation rather than reduces it, even when the racial makeup of the school is not taken into consideration.

The evidence found in the study runs counter to the argument made by school choice proponents. According to the research, segregation levels have regressed to levels not seen since the late 1960s: 69 percent of Black students and 87 percent of white students attend a school where they are the predominant race.

“There is an ongoing debate about what impact school choice would have or will have on school segregation,” said Turner. “What I expected to see was that both sets of parents would consider race more so when choosing schools.”

In the research, a group of over 1,000 Black and white parents were given the unconditional choice of different fictional schools, with the parents rating the schools on five attributes: the school’s performance rating (based upon public platforms Niche.com and Greatschools.org), teacher experience, the prevalence of poverty among the students, the commute (the amount of time it takes a parent to get their child from home to school), and the racial demographics of the student body.

Though both groups of parents rated school performance highly, the study found that Black parents were more willing to sacrifice other attributes for higher-rated schools, while white parents put more value on shorter commutes.

The study theorizes that, because of historic racial stratification and systemic issues of racism in the United States, wherein Black people have been ascribed a lower social status, Black parents are more likely to place greater value than white parents on high ratings of school performance. 

“We can see that Black parents put a bit more emphasis on these school ratings,” said Turner. “I believe that is to essentially capture some of the status that racism stole. Over time, even when parents don't consider the racial demographics of a school, the idea that we should allow for completely free choice of any school will lead to greater racial segregation.”

To test the theory that unmitigated school choice leads to greater racial segregation, the research team then created a computer simulation of how these different preferences would play out in a school district with seven schools and 4,000 students. The simulation demonstrated that, even if parents do not consider race in their school choices, the differences between Black and white preferences for other school attributes could still increase school racial segregation.

According to the study, when there are differences in school attribute preferences between Black and white parents, every 3 percent increase in households participating in school choice translates into more than 564,000 school children attending segregated schools.

“Another piece to look at is the idea that a cost in free schooling is the amount of time it takes a parent to get their child to school,” said Turner. “The study shows that Black parents were willing to make the trade-off between a longer commute time and school performance at a much higher clip than white parents. If you think of commute time as a cost, then it's stating that Black parents are willing to pay a higher cost to have their children attend higher rated schools.”

Understanding how race and racism underly the foundation of the marketplace — such as school choice — marketing, consumer technology, and research is the goal of the Technology, Race and Prejudice Lab, or T.R.A.P., LAB, a collaborative space within academia's burgeoning community of scholars and experts on the intersection of technology, race, and prejudice created by Turner.

“At the T.R.A.P. LAB, we are trying to understand how these micro-decisions impact macro systems and how racism and prejudices basically change the way we make decisions,” said Turner. “If we don't think of those things in a related system, we don't understand the way the world works. And our goal is always to be a little bit better at understanding how the world works.”

Members of the T.R.A.P. LAB meet weekly to discuss research and topics to “create solutions that simultaneously enhance organizations’ economic, social, and environmental outcomes.” Participants in the lab are research-active faculty from around the world and across disciplines.

“During the pandemic, I reached out to my colleagues that were studying how race impacts markets, but at a larger scale and not just in business schools,” said Turner. “We have a safe space where, once a week, we come in and we talk about research with each other. We show early stuff we're working on, we beat stuff up to get the science better, and we figure out how to do a better job of both asking and answering questions around technology, race, and prejudice.”

Rajesh Bagchi, department head of Marketing, said, “Broderick’s work has important implications not just for students and their parents, but for society at large. I hope policy analysts pay close attention to this important work and use it in their decision-making.”

Bagchi added that “the T.R.A.P. LAB has had a transformational impact on researchers interested in working at the cross-section of technology, race, and the marketplace. It is a nurturing and supportive environment that helps new ideas take root and mature ideas bloom. In the coming years, the T.R.A.P. LAB will continue to generate important and influential work.”

Turner said the differences caused by race and prejudice are an under-considered origin of issues such as school segregation. He hopes this realization will help inform public policy in future discussions.

“When we say things like 'free choice,' the implication or the assumption is always that everyone has either the same access or the same motivation,” said Turner. “Living in a system that has a racial hierarchy, we should always question the word free around anything. Is it really a free choice? Or is there some underlying difference behind these motivations? Because if that is the case, then we need to consider the impact of racism.”

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