Sunday, January 07, 2007

Does Education Help Breed Segregation?

Most of us think that education broadens an individual’s perspective and helps diminish racist attitudes. Prior studies have validated that conventional wisdom, but new research indicates just the opposite may be true.

A study, co-authored by Rice sociologist Michael Emerson, shows that increased education of whites, in particular, may not only have little effect on eliminating prejudice, but it also may be one reason behind the rise of racial segregation in U.S. schools. Furthermore, higher-educated whites, regardless of their income, are more likely than less-educated whites to judge a school’s quality and base their school choice on its racial composition.

Children in a segregated classroom.Black–white racial segregation has been on the rise in primary and secondary schools over the past decade. While whites, especially those who are highly educated, may express an interest in having their children attend integrated schools, in reality, they seek out schools that are racially segregated. In the study, researchers found, on average, that the greater the education of white parents, the more likely they will remove their children from public schools as the percentage of black students increases.

“We believed from prior studies that education has a significantly positive impact on racial attitudes,” says Emerson, the Allyn and Gladys Cline Professor of Sociology. “We found when studying behaviors, however, that acquiring more education is not a means of combating segregation. Education may broaden an individual’s world, but it also leads to greater negative sensitivity toward blacks’ presence in public schools.”

Emerson and research colleague David Sikkink, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, know that income and other factors come into play in terms of school choice, but their study shows that, even after controlling for these variables, education has an unintended effect. Whites with more education place a greater emphasis on race when choosing a school for their children, while higher-educated African Americans do not consider race.

“I do believe that white people are being sincere when they claim that racial inequality is not a good thing and that they’d like to see it eliminated,” says Emerson. “However, they are caught in a social system in which their liberal attitudes about race aren’t reflected in their behavior.”

According to the researchers, part of this behavior is explained by the place and meaning of schooling for children of more-educated white parents. Degrees, for example, become status markers, regardless of income. Parents seek quality education for their children to ensure they are not hindered from achieving the “good life.” As earlier studies indicate, education is a key to social mobility and one of the most important forms of cultural capital.

Emerson and Sikkink cite earlier work on school choice in Philadelphia, where race was found to be a factor in whites’ evaluations of the quality of a school. Unlike blacks, who judged schools on the basis of such outcomes as their graduation rates and students’ test scores, whites initially eliminated any schools with a majority of black students before considering factors such as schools’ graduation rates. When they analyzed a national data set of whites and non-Hispanic blacks to see if the level of their education would have an impact on their school choice, Emerson and Sikkink found a similar pattern. “Whites with higher levels of education still made school choices based on race,” explains Emerson, “while blacks did not.”

The researchers found that regardless of income, more-educated whites in their data set also lived in “whiter” neighborhoods than less-educated whites. Higher-income African Americans also lived in whiter, but more racially mixed, neighborhoods than lower-income blacks. “The more income African Americans made,” Emerson says, “the more likely their children attended more racially mixed schools than did African American children of less-educated, lower-income parents.” This, he explains, is because more highly educated or higher-income African Americans often live in areas with racially mixed local public schools, close to high concentrations of whites that have undergone desegregation plans, while African American children of less-educated, lower-income parents attend largely black schools. When separating income from their analysis, however, the researchers concluded that unlike whites, African American parents’ higher-education levels don’t affect their school choice.

In addition to the findings regarding the impact of parents’ education level and income on school choice, the study found that parents who are older and attend church more frequently look upon school choice more favorably. Those living in the West more than any other region of the country are less likely to take advantage of school choice programs, while urban residents are more likely to use such programs. Not surprisingly, residents living in areas with higher levels of home ownership, which probably reflects school quality, were found to be less likely to remove their children from the local public school.

“Our study arrived at a very sad and profound conclusion,” says Emerson. “More formal education is not the answer to racial segregation in this country. Without a structure of laws requiring desegregation, it appears that segregation will continue to breed segregation.”
Titled “School Choice and Racial Residential Segregation in U.S. Schools: The Role of Parents’ Education,” the study will be published in an upcoming issue of Ethnic and Racial Studies.

—Pam Sheridan

In a related article from

Schoolhouse Rock

Affluent parents in the East Side District are making a lot of noise—and gaining influence—in their controversial push for a new high school

By Vrinda Normand

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