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The fraught relationship between school choice and desegregation

A recent This American Life series on school desegregation is making the rounds in education circles. Both segments, the latest of which aired this weekend, are worth a listen.

The series is nominally about segregation — “The Problem We All Live With,” still. But though the phrase only appears twice in the show’s transcripts, it’s also about school choice. Both episodes spend much of their time examining different choice initiatives as communities try to integrate their schools voluntarily.

Can school choice provide a path to integration? It’s complicated.  Photo: woodleywonderworks. Creative Commons.

The first installment focuses on a public-school transfer program in the St. Louis area, which allowed the mostly poor, mostly black students of struggling school districts (including the Normandy School District where Michael Brown graduated), to transfer into surrounding, wealthier districts. The second looks, among other things, at magnet school programs in Hartford, Conn.

As a result, the series raises some issues about what can be a fraught relationship between school choice and desegregation. A few thoughts:

1. I write about school choice, I work for a school choice organization, and my contact information is available online. As a result, I sometimes get calls from parents who are struggling to enroll their children in better schools. Nedra Martin, whose quest to find a new school for her daughter is at the center of the story of the Missouri transfer program, reminds me of them. She doesn’t necessarily have a private school or a charter school in mind. She’s looking for a better option. “I was at a point of desperation,” she says, after learning that both private schools and transfers to other school districts would be out of reach. “We had to do better.” 

2. It’s clear some students and parents are seeking not just better schools, but schools that will surround them with children whose backgrounds are different from their own. Integration can be a worthy end in itself. Some school systems view choice as a means, but as we learn, it can be a flawed one.

Photo via Phil Roeder. Creative Commons.
Photo via Phil Roeder. Creative Commons.

3. Some of most gut-wrenching listening comes when white parents in the better-off school districts outside St. Louis describe their fears about the coming influx of poorer, mostly black students.

Nikole Hannah Saint Louis Public Radio recorded the meeting. One by one, parents ticked off concerns. There were questions about class sizes, money, how this will affect special ed, fire safety.

Woman 1 My question is when a child who is coming from an under-performing school with low test scores comes into a math class at Francis Howell, how will they ever possibly cope?

Woman 2 Once Normandy comes in here, will that lower our accreditation?


Nikole Hannah The woman says she was an education professor and warned Francis Howell officials not to be naive about the type of students they’d be receiving.

Woman 2 So I’m hoping that their discipline records come with them, like their health records come with them.


4. Hartford tried to integrate its public schools by creating a bunch of magnet schools aimed at drawing mostly white parents from the suburbs. It inadvertently may have created a series of institutional advantages for privileged students, prompting a Hartford school choice advocate to observe the new choice programs aimed at drawing students into the city are also the best shot urban children have at attending a great school.

Of course, they’d get another shot if more Hartford kids could be bused to the suburbs. But here’s the problem with that.

Integration is not just voluntary for white families who choose to come into the city to the magnet schools. The suburban school districts also get to choose. They get to choose how many city children they’ll allow to be bused in to their schools. And they don’t allow in so many. The last superintendent of Hartford public schools wanted to drop the whole integration thing altogether, just focus on Hartford students.

Since some suburban public schools were unwilling to integrate voluntarily, would it have helped to give the inner-city Hartford students access to private school scholarships, too? It wouldn’t solve everything, but it could give those families more options.

5. While school choice programs can, and should, make school systems more equitable, pluralistic and diverse, they often don’t work that way in practice. This American Life‘s series is premised on the idea that reducing racial and economic isolation can change students’ lives for the better. For a choice-based systems to have a shot at advancing those aims, they’re going to have to work deliberately to lower the barriers — including color barriers we’d rather not talk about — that keep students from accessing schools that might meet their needs. As the show’s producers demonstrate at the end of the second episode, we don’t like to think of those barriers as a race issue, even when that’s what they are.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)