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Social Problems: 62 (1)

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Pamela Anne QuirozNilda Flores-González

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School Selection as a Process: The Multiple Dimensions of Race in Framing Educational Choice

Salvatore Saporito , Annette Lareau
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3097108 418-439 First published online: 1 August 1999

Abstract

This paper examines how families make choices within the context of a school choice program. School choice proponents suggest that increasing choices for disadvantaged children will have many benefits, including decreasing racial segregation in urban areas. This argument has not been supported with empirical data. In this paper, we use quantitative and interview data from an entire population of eighth graders in a large northeastern school district to examine the influence of race on the schools families select. We find compelling evidence that race is a very powerful force in guiding family choices. Specifically, white families assiduously avoid schools with higher percentages of African American students. After eliminating “black” schools from consideration, white families choose “white” schools, many of which have inferior safety records, test scores, and higher rates of poverty. In contrast, African American families do not show a similar sensitivity to race; instead they tend to select schools with lower poverty rates. These findings have a number of implications for theory and policy. In terms of policy, choice advocates argue that voucher programs will give poor, African American children the same alternatives currently available to more affluent, white families. This should make choice programs compatible with the goal of racial integration. However, our evidence suggests that the marked preference of white families to avoid “black” schools could exacerbate, rather than reduce, racial segregation. These findings also have conceptual implications. Decision-making is a socially charged activity; choices are not made merely on the basis of individual taste. Rather, preferences are shaped by social factors, including one's racial background. White and African American families make distinctly different school choices. Indeed, white families eliminate from consideration schools in which 90 percent or more of the children are African American. The further theoretical implication is that choices unfold in a multi-staged process in which some alternatives are eliminated from serious consideration based upon socially salient characteristics. This has the power to inform the choice process in the social settings of housing, hiring practices, and similar areas of social life.

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