Happy African American student raising her hand to ask a question during lecture in the classroom.

Every spring 80,000 NYC eighth-graders receive their matched high school offer. The offer ends a months-long process when families search for potential schools and submit an application to the NYC Department of Education ranking their top twelve preferred schools. And every spring, the high school match season sparks a passioned conversation about how NYC school choice policies abate, reflect, and/or exacerbate racial inequities and segregation. Although students are key policy recipients and actors in school choice and segregation, student perspectives are often absent from this policy debate.  

I wanted to understand students’ opinions of high schools. Unlike elementary and middle school selections, students are deeply involved in their high school selections. I conducted an experiment with over 1,000 NYC eighth grade families to understand their preferences for potential high schools. I separately asked parents and students their willingness to attend hypothetical majority White, Latinx, and Black schools with randomized graduation rates and safety indicators. These schools were essentially the exact same but differed by their racial compositions.

Emphasizing the importance of students to the school segregation conversation, I found that students express different race-based preferences for schools than their parents.  

White and Latinx students’ preferences for schools were less anti-Black than White and Latinx parents. White and Latinx parents’ aversion to attending the Black school compared to White and Latinx schools was two to three times larger than White and Latinx students’ preferences to avoid the Black school. The differences in White and Latinx parents’ and students’ race-based school preferences could be driven by younger generations being less likely to desire racially segregated schools and to endorse anti-Black sentiments and stereotypes. Parents may also feel particularly anxious about making educational decisions that secure students’ socio-economic future and use race as a signal for schools’ academic quality.

Among Black respondents, Black students preferred to avoid the White school relative to the other school options, while Black parents did not express race-based preferences for schools. Black students’ caution with attending the White schools could be due to their awareness and apprehensions about potential racial biases, discrimination, and violence in White social spaces.

Student perspectives of schools yields cautious optimism about the future of segregation.

We could see racial segregation decline, as this generation of White and Latinx students mature into adulthood. They could continue to be less anti-Black than their parents and less avoidant of schools, universities, neighborhoods, and jobs with more Black people. However, as White and Latinx youth become parents, they could also adopt the same socio-economic anxieties and anti-Black preferences as their parents. They could avoid Black spaces and, accordingly, school and residential racial segregation could persist.

As Black youth continue to grapple with publicized racial violence and discrimination, they may choose to avoid predominately White universities and neighborhoods and to select HBCUs and Black neighborhoods. These students could also eventually believe, like Black parents, that there is no right choice that shields them from structural and individual racism.

In cities across the country, like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, politicians, education administrators, and parents intensely contest school choice policies and segregation. However, we must center student voice in these conversations to both garner hope and grapple with potential difficulties with the future of educational equity.

Chantal A. Hailey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research is at the intersections of race and ethnicity, stratification, urban sociology, education, and criminology. She is particularly interested in how micro decision-making contributes to larger macro segregation and stratification patterns and how racism creates, sustains, and exacerbates racial, educational, and socioeconomic inequality. You can follow them on Twitter @ChantalAHailey

Recent Articles:

 “Racial Preferences for Schools: Evidence from a Survey Experiment with White, Black, Latinx, and Asian Parents and Students”  Sociology of Education

Racialized Perceptions of Anticipated School Belonging” Educational Policy