DeGrow: Does school choice segregate students?


A recent report in Bridge magazine declared school choice the new “white flight” for metro Detroit, claiming that it’s “producing segregation” in Michigan districts. The stories suggest a sweeping negative verdict on choice that isn’t supported by the evidence.

Michigan’s two-decades-old Schools of Choice program lets students enroll across school district lines, under certain conditions. Each district decides whether to accept students from within its intermediate school district.

A district also can limit the number of incoming students to certain schools or grade levels based on capacity. If a district imposes a limit, it must use a random lottery to admit eligible applicants.

Research tends to support the idea that integration is a good thing, particularly for racial minorities and disadvantaged students. Rolling back families’ power to choose by basing enrollment on a child’s home address won’t increase integration.

Michigan State University researchers have tracked many thousands of children using Schools of Choice. They found that students who are low-income and black are more likely to exercise inter-district choice, and also more likely to be mobile.

We know more about how choice affects the academic performance of students. The best available research shows that students who switch to public charter schools — mostly minorities — gain two to three months of learning each year. As for students who transfer between traditional public schools, the initial MSU study found no real effect, leaving more questions to be answered.

Parents may use inter-district choice for many reasons, including a safer school environment or a specific extracurricular program. We just don’t know enough about how and why Michigan families make these decisions.

Determining whether segregation has occurred as the result of numerous voluntary decisions is complicated and controversial.

A 2009 RAND study of eight states found that when students enroll in charter schools, the new school tends to look like the old one, at least in its racial make-up. An Urban Institute analysis of all U.S. counties found no connection between increased choice and how many white classmates minority pupils have.

While the first MSU study did not directly address segregation, it did find that within poor, heavily minority districts, students who were relatively better off were more likely to use a school choice option. This isn’t surprising, but shows we must make choice more equitable and accessible.

School districts should not be able to deny transferring students who wish to fill empty seats. Transportation scholarships should be offered so those same families can afford a lengthier trip.

Finally, Michigan’s school ranking system that’s based solely on raw test scores incentivizes schools to keep out children who are academically behind.

Taking away educational options because the law is not perfect would disproportionately harm Michigan's lower-income and minority families. Instead, lawmakers could consider ways to enhance the program's role as a helpful lifeline for parents seeking something better.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.