April 18, 2023

Bryan Mann: Competing schools or competing families? The segregative effects of neighborhood racial change and a school lottery in Washington DC

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Peter Piazza, of the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Penn State, hosts a guest post by Bryan Mann, faculty member in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies department at the University of Kansas. He shares here some research showing evidence that competition leads to segregation.

I remember waiting for a bus in the rain on my last day of data collection in Washington, DC, in February 2020. I was in the city working on a project studying school choice, neighborhood racial change, and racial segregation, and I had just finished an interview with an upper-middle-class family in an affluent area of the city.

I waited about 45 minutes for the delayed bus as I trekked back to my temporary home in the gentrifying part of town. I was frustrated because the bus was not coming, and I was getting wet. It was not lost on me that this daily journey would not be feasible for low-income families to get their kids to school. I stood there, waiting, thinking about one of the final statements my interviewee said.

“They made this choice system to help low-income people, but I think it ends up just helping people like us. It doesn’t seem like it is doing what it was supposed to do,” he said.

As is often the case in qualitative research, the words of participants best capture the study’s conclusions. This quote captures a core theme of the findings from this project: As neoliberalism pervades all aspects of our society, from housing to schools, it causes competition everywhere and between everyone. In the competition for spots in desirable schools, advantaged families win.

Economists predicted school competition would be a mechanism that would improve organizations because organizations improve when they compete. The economists undersold in market-based reform policies that competition also happens between families. Competition between families occurs because they view schools as the sole mechanism for economic security. This understanding leaves many parents feeling their children’s position in the social and economic hierarchy is delicate and causes them to calculate that pursuits of equality are not worth individual risks.

School design could buffer the competitive pressures found across areas of US society. However, rather than buffering the effects of competition in other sectors of society, market-based reform hypercharges competition between families for limited spots in desirable schools. In Washington, DC, our research shows that the prevailing logics of competition prompts even the most socially just-minded families to participate in behaviors that inevitably lead to inequality and segregation.

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