UW News

October 30, 2003

Researchers: Segregation charge against school reforms may be ‘overhyped’

Vouchers, charter schools and other school-choice programs might not make America’s schools any more segregated and unequal than they are today, according to a new study. The reason? Today’s public schools are bastions of inequality.

“Alert and aggressive parents already work the bureaucracy to get the best for their children,” said Paul Hill, co-author of the study in this month’s journal Education Policy Analysis Archives.

In fact, Hill and co-author Kacey Guin, both of the UW’s Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs, argue that the kind of parental jockeying for favors that takes place under school-choice programs is at least more “transparent” than the hidden special treatment routinely secured by savvy and connected parents in most public school systems.

To evaluate the status quo, Hill and Guin reviewed several key studies by researchers at the UW and elsewhere and found:

  • Separation of white and minority students has increased since 1988.
  • Experienced, better-paid teachers cluster in schools with the most privileged students, a phenomenon that quietly channels public money away from schools in poverty-prone areas.
  • Minority and low-income students consistently get assigned to slower academic tracks, and in 38 states black students are twice as likely as whites to be labeled as mentally retarded.

Against that backdrop, the authors said, the warning often levied about school-choice programs — that they might increase racial segregation and inequality — is overhyped.

Partly because of those segregation fears, Hill said, school choice has yet to get a large-scale, long-term trial in America despite federal endorsement of the concept and widespread interest from parents, scholars, educators and politicians around the country. Hill is the lead author of a major Brookings Institution study on choice to be released Nov. 17.

“Choice should be compared against the real performance of the public-education system, not its idealized aspirations,” said Hill, who is director of the Evans School’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. “The burden of proof has been misplaced.”

And by understanding exactly where the current system promotes unfairness, added Guin, a center researcher, some abuses can be eliminated. For example, overcrowded schools that are attractive to both whites and minorities can be expanded or copied.

“The evidence does not show that choice leads to more unequal outcomes than the covert choice system that now prevails,” she said.