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Desegregating schools requires more than giving parents free choices – a scholar studies the choices parents of all races make

Chantal Hailey is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts.Her work focuses on the role of race and racism in how people choose schools and the other spaces they inhabit, and how racism influences inequality. Below are highlights from an interview with The Conversation. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Chantal Hailey discusses her research about how race and racism influence school choice.

What do you study?

My research at this moment focuses on school choice in New York City, and particularly the role of race in how people choose high schools in New York City. This is important for a couple of reasons. One, New York City is the largest school district in the United States. Over a million kids attend school in this school district.

And in 2014, there was a study that came out that was completely surprising to me as someone who was new to New York City. It said that New York state’s schools were the most segregated in the country. And that was surprising for two reasons. One, we often think of New York and particularly New York City as this really racially diverse metropolitan area.

The other reason this is surprising is that, for high school in particular, there is school choice, which means students can choose to attend school anywhere across the city. A lot of the reasons we think about or talk about school segregation is that it’s tied to racially segregated housing and neighborhoods.

But in New York City, those two ties are broken up. People can technically choose to attend school anywhere across the city. But yet you still see these really stark patterns of segregation.

I ask in my work, why do we still see racial sorting patterns across schools and really stark racial segregation? I use both data from families’ actual applications to high schools and an experiment to understand why we see segregation in New York City schools.

What’s one thing you want people to take away from your research?

Even though we might think of school choice as a race-neutral policy, the ways in which families interact with school choice policies are very racialized. By that, I mean a couple of things: One, that means families interpret information about schools through what I call their racial prisms – that is, their racial biases toward groups, general cultural stereotypes around groups, other experiences and exposures to different racial groups.

So families are interpreting information about schools through race. They also have racial preferences for schools.

In the experiment and in the administrative data, I examine schools that are the exact same but differ only by their racial demographics. And what I find is that families across different racial groups express racial preferences for schools. So in particular, I find that white and Asian families have had really stark desires to avoid Black and Latino spaces.

I find that Latino families also want to avoid majority Black schools, and I find that Black families often desire not to to attend majority-white schools. So again, I really want to emphasize that even though we might think of school choice as race neutral or even a racial equity policy, the ways in which people are interacting with that policy are very racialized and based upon their own experiences and exposures and cultural stereotypes in our larger structure of racism.

What inspired you to study the field that you’re in right now?

My own schooling experiences. I experienced many different kinds of racialized school spaces, from a majority-Black elementary school to racially mixed middle schools to a private, all-girls majority-white school. Across all those spaces, I saw different resources that were available. I saw different racialized treatment of students across these different spaces.

I knew that race was central in both how I experienced those spaces and in my decisions and my mom’s decisions to move me across these spaces. So I wanted to understand the patterns of race and school choice from a larger context and how it influences students’ racialized outcomes and their experiences within school spaces.