The troubling ways wealthy parents pick schools


Interview data from Houston parents shows that when it comes to their kids’ education, race plays a role in decisions.

Photo of empty school desks

Interview data from Houston parents shows that when it comes to their kids’ education, race plays a role in decisions.

Give parents the choice of where to send their kids to school, and it’s not hard to imagine what they’ll pick: the best place available.

But that raises a more fundamental question: how do parents decide which school is the best?

Researcher Amanda Bancroft wanted to learn more about how parents make such critical choices. What she discovered raises serious questions about class, race, and the education system as we know it.

Bancroft’s work was based on interviews with more than 20 “high-status” parents – mostly wealthy and mostly white – who live in the Houston Independent School District. They represented outliers, since the overwhelming majority of HISD students are racial minorities and economically disadvantaged.

But HISD offered the perfect laboratory for Bancroft, of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research’s Houston Education Research Consortium, to conduct her research. Since the 1970s, HISD has been a pioneer in offering “school choice” for parents. Under school choice programs, parents can send their children to the local school to which they’re zoned, but they can also apply for admission to magnet schools focused on specific topics, vanguard schools for high-achievers, or charter schools that have some freedom from district oversight.

“It created a market for parents to have access to different kinds of schools,” Bancroft said in an interview.

Ideally, the policies are a win-win for everyone. Lower-income parents don’t necessarily have to send their children to the types of underfunded schools typical of low-income neighborhoods. High-performing students can attend schools in the place that suit them best.

But Bancroft, based on her interviews with “high-status” parents, found an intriguing (and somewhat disturbing) trend.

In the wake of No Child Left Behind, a slew of data became available to policymakers and parents alike that can be used to figure out which schools are strong performers and which aren’t. Ostensibly, that accountability data – widely available online – should be key element in helping parents determine where they want to send their kids to school.

But that wasn’t the case. Bancroft said accountability data played a lesser role in parents’ decision-making process that many school choice advocates theorize.

Instead, parents relied on anecdotes from friends about which schools are best. And while district accountability data didn’t play a big role in their decision-making process, Bancroft found the racial makeup of schools did.

Generally, high-status parents chose schools they felt were a safe bet. In many cases, she writes in her forthcoming paper, that’s “not necessarily the school with the best test scores, the lowest teacher turnover, or any of the other data that are aggregated into a school’s accountability profile.”

Instead, she said, “‘safe’ is whatever collective opinion says the ‘good’ schools are – usually, the schools that have a majority of white, affluent students.”

That’s ironic, since the very school choice system that allowed them to make those decisions was originally designed as a way to foster integration. In the wake of the Civil Rights Act, school choice gave lower-income residents in segregated communities access to the type of white schools from which they had previously been excluded.

To be clear, the parents Bancroft interviewed rarely explicitly mentioned a school’s racial composition as a reason they sent their kids there (or as a reason for moving them elsewhere). “It wasn’t so much what they were saying as how they were saying it,” Bancroft explained.

Instead, they relied on coded language, using words like “urban” to describe the populations of some schools or reiterating fears about “gangs” or “crack dealers.” Bancroft said it’s “hardly a stretch” to figure out what parents were talking about when they used those terms. (It’s worth noting that the use of this language isn’t unique to the respondents in Bancroft’s study; in fact, the use of race-based coded language among this population is well-documented.)

The role of race in choosing schools was so pronounced that, in some cases, parents actually put their kids in lower-performing schools rather than enroll them in a higher-performing school with large numbers of minority students.

One interviewee, for example, moved his family to avoid getting stuck with what he believed to be a substandard school. But Bancroft notes that all of the elementary schools in that parent’s former neighborhood had met accountability standards for the last four years. One reason he might have moved? Student enrollment in each of those schools was 50 percent to 90 percent Hispanic, Bancroft found.

A different parent made a distinction between the “high-quality” and “lesser-quality” kids in the district while making a reference to students’ races.

Another tried to avoid enrolling his child in a school that was actually one of the most sought-after in the district, citing its “urban” problems.

When parents did use accountability data, they often used it as an afterthought and suggested it shouldn’t be trusted, Bancroft found. In one instance, a parent told Bancroft she avoided a school because it had poor accountability ratings. But when Bancroft went back and checked the data, it showed the school doing well. It wasn’t difficult to surmise that other factors were at play.

In her paper, Bancroft highlights the delicate dance parents take as they explain their choices. At the same time, she points to the larger problem school choice raises. She writes:

“When the parents in my study referred to the ‘urban problems’ in a school, it allows them to link the lack of quality they see in the school to teen pregnancy and drugs – individual acts – when the larger problem with the school is that it exists within a segregated district with unequal access to quality education. Color-blind cultural logics have arisen in a society that is built on racial inequality, but is organized by a set of social norms that say talking openly about race is unacceptable.”

The study raises questions about whether school choice really accomplishes what it’s intended to accomplish.

Often, high-status parents have the resources to move close to a school they think will serve their child well. That way, even if they don’t wind up at the magnet or vanguard program they’re seeking, they’ll still have access to a school they perceive as “good.”

That’s problematic, because the option of moving in order to have access to certain schools isn’t financially feasible to many lower-income residents of the district. And that fact largely undermines the promise of school choice.

Bancroft argues that the way high-parents use school choice has the potential to entrench segregation within the district rather than combat it. In the end, she writes, the program provides a new way in which “collective stereotypes work in the interest of the privileged and against the interests of the poor and the marginalized.”

Ryan Holeywell


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