This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Few topics in education inspire more debate than school choice and school integration. A new study co-authored by Penn State professors combines the two and reaches an eye-raising conclusion: When Pennsylvania students move from traditional public schools to charters, they tend to choose charters that are more racially homogeneous than the schools they left behind.
Black students, in other words, pick charters that are more heavily African-American than their former public schools. The same goes for Latino students.
Students choose these schools, the study authors found, even when nearby charters weren’t as disproportionately dominated by members of their own race.
"Findings indicate that, holding distance and enrollment constant, black and Latino students are strongly averse to moving to charter schools with higher percentages of white students," the study’s authors wrote. "White students are more likely to enroll in such charter schools."
The findings, published Monday in the academic journal Education Policy Analysis Archives, were based on a data set of more than 8,000 Pennsylvania students who first attended charters in the 2011-12 school year. More than three-quarters of the students in the analysis went to charter schools in Philadelphia.
This isn’t the first study to link school choice and racial segregation. But it is designed to rebut a central critique of past academia in this area — namely that charter schools are more segregated because they’re located in already-segregated neighborhoods.
The authors of this latest analysis wanted to test that theory.
To do so they examined how far students travelled from their home school when picking a charter and whether they tended to pick the closest school. The answer was no.
"In fact, the average distance to a chosen charter school was at least twice as far as the nearest charter school for black and Latino students regardless of age group," the authors wrote.
The study also looked at other choices students had when opting for a charter. They considered any school within a 10-mile radius of the student’s home school to be a potential choice (a relatively generous definition in densely populated cities such as Philadelphia). They then determined how many choices for the average student fit into one of five demographic categories: 0-20 percent white; 20-40 percent white; 40-60 percent white; 60-80 percent white; and 80-100 percent white.
In all, they found most minority students did have choices that were in the 0-40 percent white range or the 60-100 percent white range.
On the flip side, they also found that for black and Latino students, overwhelmingly white charters tended to be about twice as far away as overwhelmingly nonwhite schools.
There is a lot to unpack, and it’s a study that raises important issues. We reached out to lead author Erica Frankenberg, an education professor at Penn State University, for some follow-up questions.
The answers are edited and condensed for clarity.