Schools with socioeconomically and racially integrated student bodies offer numerous educational benefits to children of all backgrounds, and particularly to low-income students. We need more diverse schools, and public school choice programs—magnet schools, charter schools, or choice-based assignment to district schools—are a promising way of creating integrated schools. Choice can create diverse schools in areas where residential segregation or segregated school attendance boundaries make it a challenge to integrate neighborhood schools. But for choice systems to be effective tools for integration, parents need to choose schools with integrated student bodies for their children, and schools need to attract interest from a diverse group of families. We have success stories already, but is there room to expand choice-based integration? Will parents choose diverse schools, and can schools attract diverse families?
Today the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a new study that shines light on these questions. Using results from an online survey administered to over 2,000 parents nationwide, the report examines differences in parents’ preferences for their children’s schools based on demographics. It also profiles selected “niche markets”—preferences that were highly valued by a subset of parents.
In looking at the role for diverse schools in a landscape of school choice, I found several key lessons in the report’s findings:
Multiculturalist parents exist, and diverse schools should market to them.
About a fifth of all parents place the goal of students learning “how to work with people from diverse backgrounds” among their top priorities. This means that while the majority of parents consider diversity a lower priority, there is a core group of parents for whom an integrated school environment and a school culture that fosters diversity are big draws. Charter schools or magnet schools seeking to enroll a diverse student body should showcase their student diversity as one of the main features of the school in order to attract these parents.
Preferences are remarkably similar among parents in different income brackets.
One of the concerns that is sometimes raised about integrated schools is that low-income and middle-class families want different things in a school for their children. Michael Petrilli, Executive Vice President of Fordham and co-author of the report’s foreword, raises this concern in his book The Diverse Schools Dilemma: “Students either call their teachers by their first names or they don’t. Either they wear uniforms or they don’t. It’s hard for schools to meet the needs of poor kids while also meeting the expectations of affluent parents.” But the data from this report show that low-, middle-, and high-income parents mostly want the same things for their children. Developing strong critical thinking skills and offering a strong reading and math curriculum were top priorities for parents from all income brackets, and wearing school uniforms or developing fluency in a foreign language were low priorities. While there were differences by income in some preferences—low-income families are more likely than high-income families to prioritize instilling an appreciation for the importance of going to college, for example, and middle- to high-income families are more likely value STEM education—the differences are generally slight. Thus, worries about the difficulty of satisfying a socioeconomically diverse group of families with the same school features may be overblown.
Academic quality is the top concern for all parents.
Perhaps the biggest finding of the report was how much similarity there was among parent preferences. It is not the case that poor parents mainly want schools that are conveniently located, while liberal parents care most about project-based learning, and white parents care most about a school’s athletic program. Across racial, economic, and political lines, parents value a basic academic foundation including a strong reading and math curriculum and developing good study skills. Highlighting these aspects of a school is a good way to attract families from a variety of backgrounds.