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School Choice and Who Has a Right to Choose

School choice policies have long been a part of the U.S. education system. They are designed with the intent to give families more options for how their children receive an education. However, these policies are not without their issues, particularly when it comes to equitable educational opportunity. Indeed, school choice policies can either provide schooling environments that are diverse and of high quality or they can work to increase segregation and inequality (Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, & Wang, 2011). While at one time school choice policies were used to mitigate segregation and simultaneously provide families with options that did not exclude a school’s ability to racially diversify, the current context that seeks to establish education as a market-driven system is making it increasingly difficult to do so (Wells, 2014). Indeed, the rise of market-driven education reforms has created a system that operates as a marketplace of schooling options in which the increase of choice is assumed to lead to higher quality and more efficient and innovative schools. Market-driven school choice policies such as charter schools, vouchers, and open-enrollment programs that are highly racialized have been adopted across the U.S. in conjunction with the current accountability movement, stressing testing and outcomes over equitable access to quality schools (Wells, 2014). Since schools are accountable for how well their students perform on standardized assessments, school choice often results in schools choosing students (those that will help them meet their benchmarks) or implementing strategies that attract higher performing students (Diem, Carpenter, & Lewis-Durham, 2019; Holme, Carkhum & Rangel, 2013;Jabbar, 2015b).

Additionally, despite research that shows how these policies almost always lead to increased racial inequality (Siegel-Hawley, 2016; Wells, 2014), they are growing at a rapid rate.

School choice on its face sounds like an ideal approach to education. Who doesn’t want the ability to choose where to send their children to school based on factors most important to them? Yet, in reality school choice is much more complex as, like any other choices in the market, there are differing options (Orfield, 2013) and everybody does not have the same ability and access to choose. Research shows that those benefitting most from school choice policies are families, predominately white and affluent, who have access to resources and networks about their choices (Beal & Hendry, 2012; Fuller, Elmore, & Orfield, 1996; Roda & Wells, 2013; Scott, 2005). Since families differ in terms of their financial means, they differ, too, in whether they can truly consider school choice as an option. This is also coupled with the structural characteristics of the local choice context (e.g., residential segregation, marketplace, commute time to schools) that can affect which students have the ability to move to desired schools (Rich & Jennings, 2015). Moreover, while white and affluent families may claim to value racial diversity in public schools, when it actually comes to choosing schools in which to enroll their children, they select what they believe to be the “best” schools, which are predominately white (Roda & Wells, 2013). This contradictory thinking about racial diversity is representative of a larger societal problem and understanding around how choice actually works, who gets to make choices, and who benefits the most from these choices. The assumption is that in a free marketplace, people should have the ability to choose what is in their best interest and all other tangential factors (e.g., racial segregation in schools) will work themselves out on their own. Moreover, in a market-driven education system that forces schools to compete with each other, schools will feel pressured to increase the quality of education provided, thus educational innovation will increase, better academic outcomes will occur, schools will be more efficient, and inequality will lessen (Feinberg & Lubienski, 2008; Miron & Weiner, 2012).

Often what’s missing in the school choice conversation is how these policies can serve as a catalyst for segregated or integrated school settings.1 Moreover, as schools become more unequal, racial and socioeconomic inequalities grow, and failure to meet academic performance levels continues to have devastating impacts on school communities, school leaders need to be cognizant as to how school choice is working and who serves as its greatest beneficiary (Orfield,

2013). Scholars have argued that any conversation around school choice must also include racial diversity and equity or these policies will do nothing to address the rising inequality in our public schools. Of course, this is hard to do in policy environments that fail to place a high value on racial diversity and when, judicially, the courts have retreated on their commitment to ensuring school districts are not operating segregated schools (Clotfelter, 2004). One only needs to turn to the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007) ruling to gain insight into the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion on how to provide racially diverse learning environments. The Court struck down two school districts’ voluntary efforts to racially diversify their schools and ruled that schools cannot use race as a sole factor in such efforts. Chief Justice Roberts famously stated in the majority’s opinion, “The way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” (p. 2768). This color-evasive view of how to go about preventing racially isolated schools without being able to take a student’s race into account when doing so has left school districts seeking to create and/or maintain racially diverse schools in a quandary as they do not want to be subject to potential lawsuits. Yet, the Court also left room for school districts to implement various student assignment strategies to achieve diverse school settings, and many districts continue to implement racially conscious student assignment policies that seek to create racially diverse schools and provide families with an array of school choice options (Frankenberg, Anderson, & Taylor, 2017). Recent research has identified 111 school districts as having voluntary integration policies (Kahlenberg, 2016; Potter et al., 2016; Reardon & Owens, 2014). However, when looking at who is actually working to implement such policies to promote diverse student populations, other research has identified only 59 districts working toward this end (Anderson & Frankenberg, 2019). And of these 59 districts implementing integration policies, the majority (46) use socioeconomic status to guide enrollment decisions while a smaller number (13) use race and socioeconomic status to try to diversify their schools (Anderson & Frankenberg, 2019).

In this chapter, we provide a brief history of school choice, including the racialized market-driven agenda behind it and the racial implications of implementing these types of policies for school districts and communities. We highlight a few examples of school choice options that are not only growing in popularity but those that have been available to school districts for decades. We then discuss the relationship between school choice and inequality, illustrating the segregative effect of school choice if not designed in ways that intentionally seek to achieve integrated school settings. We discuss the general school choice discourse existent in policy settings as well as strategies school leaders are utilizing in market-driven contexts to better inform school leaders of the policy debate and arm them with the knowledge necessary to be active participants in school choice deliberations. We conclude the chapter by providing specific examples of school choice policies educational leaders have developed and implemented that are race-conscious, to elucidate the possibilities for achieving equity and racial diversity in a school choice context.

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