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School Choice and Segregation: Evidence From New Orleans

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This week we are hearing from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA New Orleans). Today's post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner's perspective on this research.

This post is by Lindsay Bell Weixler and Nathan Barrett, Associate Directors of and Senior Research Fellows at ERA New Orleans, Douglas N. Harris (@douglasnharris), Professor of Economics at Tulane University and Director of ERA New Orleans, and Jennifer Jennings, Associate Professor of Sociology at New York University.

Evidence shows that the post-Katrina school reforms, which created a citywide school choice system dominated by charters, have led to large gains in student achievement. However, critics of the charter movement worry about unintended consequences, including the impact on traditional public schools, educational equity, and school segregation.

Prior research finds that charter schools are more concentrated by race and income than nearby traditional public schools. Research on parents' preferences also finds that families tend to choose schools with students from similar backgrounds. Taken together, these findings highlight potential concerns that school choice at scale, as in New Orleans, could lead to worsening segregation in an already segregated system.

In a study released last week by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, we examined the effect of the New Orleans school reforms on segregation, answering the following research questions:

  1. Did the reforms affect segregation by race, income, achievement special education designation, and English Language Learner status?
  2. Did changes in segregation differ for elementary and high school students?

Our team analyzed changes in segregation using two measures: unevenness and isolation. Unevenness measures how perfectly each school's population mirrors the district population, while isolation measures the typical concentration of a student's own group in the schools they attend. We then compared the changes in New Orleans to changes over the same time period in two comparison groups to isolate the effects of the reforms from state and national trends.

Overall, our results showed small, mixed effects. At the elementary level, we found minimal effects on segregation across demographics, apart from a decrease in segregation for Asian students. However, segregation levels in high schools changed in a number of ways:

  • Black, Hispanic, and low-income high school students are more segregated after the reforms.
  • Special education high school students became somewhat less segregated, while English Language Learners are more segregated now than they would have been in the absence of the reforms.
  • Segregation by achievement declined, as both high- and low-performing high school students in ELA and math were more evenly distributed across schools after the reforms.

Though we did not find that citywide school choice led to consistent increases in segregation, as prior research might suggest, increased choice does not appear to be a broad solution to the persistent problem of school segregation. That said, choice-based systems do offer distinctive possibilities. For example, some New Orleans charter elementary schools have sought to deliberately increase the diversity of their student populations using a number of strategies, including specific curricular approaches and mixed-income pre-K programs.

With growing evidence of increased inequality in income and wealth nationwide, it is important to consider segregation of schools as a potential cause and effect of those trends. Our results for New Orleans confirm the broader national pattern that very few school systems--whether traditional or those with choice-based reforms--have had much success in integrating schools, suggesting that segregation will likely remain an issue for New Orleans and other cities around the country for years to come.

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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