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Are schools in your local school district segregated?

Apr 23 2021

Posted In:

American Democracy Research

2019-2020 SCAD Graduate Fellow Marissa Thompson shares insights from her SCAD-sponsored research. 

Are schools in your local school district segregated? We asked 1,700 parents to guess the level of economic school segregation in their school systems in order to understand their perceptions of this persistent problem. Unfortunately, economic school segregation is rising rapidly in the U.S., but policies to reduce school segregation are politically contentious and rely heavily on parental support.

In many ways, there is a contradiction between what parents report valuing and how they behave, given that a majority of Americans consider economic school segregation to be a pressing problem, but economic school segregation continues to rise in part due to parental choices.

Despite the large body of research on the measurement and consequences of school segregation, comparatively less is known about public opinion surrounding policies to reduce school segregation, particularly among parents. To address this gap in the literature, in this study we investigate how providing parents with information on the amount and consequences of public-school segregation in their district affects their support for policies to reduce school segregation.

We fielded a nationally representative survey of parents that measures their beliefs about the levels of school segregation in their local district as well as their personal and policy preferences for reducing local school segregation. We also use experimental manipulation to test if disagreement surrounding school segregation-reducing policies stems from differences in parental beliefs about school segregation or from differences in parental preferences given existing amounts and consequences of school segregation. In doing so, we shed light on the mechanisms that contribute to the maintenance of social and educational inequality by class.

To this end, our study has two main aims. First, we study conceptions of the levels of economic school segregation to investigate if parents have an accurate understanding of how segregated their local schools are. Second, we randomly assigned respondents to one of two groups: a control group and a treatment group. The treatment group was given information about the actual levels of segregation in their school districts, as well as a research finding on the harms of school segregation for low-income schoolchildren. The control group did not receive any additional information after guessing their local level of school segregation. We then asked both groups to answer a number of questions about their personal and policy preferences around reducing economic school segregation.

Our results suggest that parents have a poor understanding of the segregation levels in their school districts. In fact, average perceptions of school segregation were correct less than one sixth of the time, or essentially no better than a random guess. On average, parents underestimate the amount of segregation in their local contexts. Not only did respondents underestimate the levels of local segregation, but many respondents (incorrectly) believed that their district had no school segregation.

Moreover, we also observed substantial variation in terms of the differences in respondent’s actual and perceived segregation levels. Respondents in the most segregated districts tended to substantially underestimate school segregation, while respondents in the least segregated districts tended to overestimate school segregation. When considering results by income, high-income respondents tended to underestimate their local levels of economic school segregation, while low-income respondents tended to overestimate. However, in spite of this underestimation, updated information on the actual levels of segregation in one’s school district did not significantly change either personal or policy preferences around economic school segregation.

Together, these findings highlight both that there are persistent misconceptions about segregation, but also that correcting misperceptions alone does not appear to influence policy preferences. Given this finding, interventions beyond information may be needed in order to substantially shift preferences in a way that might promote more educational equity.