Erica Frankenberg (Ed.D., Harvard University) is an assistant professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies in the College of Education at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests focus on racial desegregation and inequality in K-12 schools, and the connections between school segregation and other metropolitan policies. She has published four books, dozens of articles in education policy journals, law reviews, housing journals, and practitioner publications, and has been involved in several desegregation cases as an expert witness.  Her work has also been cited in recent Supreme Court decisions about race-conscious policies in education.

Prior to joining the Penn State faculty, she was the Research and Policy Director for the Initiative on School Integration at the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA.  One aspect of her work has examined how districts respond to the Supreme Court’s 2007 voluntary integration decision. This on-going research examines how school districts define diversity and what policies they adopt to pursue diversity. Dr. Frankenberg is the co-editor of Integrating schools in a changing society: New policies and legal options for a multiracial generation (with Elizabeth DeBray), from the University of North Carolina Press. 

Dr. Frankenberg recently completed a study of suburban racial change examining the extent to which suburban districts are becoming more diverse, how they conceptualize of this change, and what responses districts and communities adopt. A book from the Harvard Education Press in Fall 2012 co-edited with Gary Orfield, The Resegregation of Suburban Schools: A Hidden Crisis in American Education, is the first publication from this project. 

Finally, Dr. Frankenberg’s research has examined how the design of school choice policy affects racial and economic student stratification. This has included examining the segregation trends in charter schools as well as analyzing state and federal policy to understand why such patterns of segregation exist in charter schools. She has co-authored (with Gary Orfield) a book on this topic, Educational Delusions? Why Choice Can Deepen Inequality and How to Make it Fair (from University of California Press). 

On May 15, the Civil Rights Project released a study that I co-authored with Gary Orfield about the extent of school segregation 60 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision the U.S. Supreme Court issued on May 17, 1954. Our analysis of data from public schools across the country has several noteworthy findings. Today, the country’s public school enrollment is more diverse than ever. In the two largest regions the South and the West, in fact, white students no longer comprise a majority of the enrollment. In the South, traditionally home to most black students and where black students remain the most desegregated despite sharp declines, Latinos are larger than blacks. We find that black and Latino students across most regions have rising segregation, including substantial segregation in suburban areas.  Although traditionally not a focus of most segregation discussions, white students too are segregated: white students attend schools with higher percentages of same-race peers than of any other race (nearly three-quarters of students, on average). Finally, schools with high concentrations of black & Latino students strongly overlap with concentrated poverty.

School choice policies are both contributors to this rising segregation and should be looked at as potential solutions to help mitigate school segregation. Other research, including work that I’ve done , finds very high levels of racial concentration in charter schools, for example.  Other work, particularly in international contexts, also suggests that vouchers as another type of school choice are associated with high stratification. (Of course, in the aftermath of the Brown decision, in some southern states, white students used vouchers to attend private academies as a way to avoid desegregation.) Finally, most states have adopted some type of school choice policy, either within and/or between districts, but frequently this can also lead to more segregation. Taken together, these school choice policies give the illusion of allowing those who historically have had fewer opportunities to select high-quality schools the way the wealthier and/or white families frequently do in terms of the residential decisions they make. Yet, there are still concerns about the extent to which school choice is available equally to all (e.g., students may not be able to attend if schools don’t offer needed programs such as for English language learners or special education students) and what the quality of schools, including student composition, is that students are choosing.

Despite this, we have examples of ways in which school choice, when designed intentionally to create diverse schools, has been a successful tool in furthering integration. One of the most extensive and long running forms of school choice is magnet schools.  Although there has been growing diversity of aims of magnet schools that has rendered some magnet schools less effective at reducing racial isolation, they serve over a million students annually. Other districts, like Jefferson County, Kentucky, which enrolls approximately 100,000 students, use a controlled choice plan that allows parents to submit choices, which the district considers along with the diversity of the school.  Although the Supreme Court prohibited some types of controlled choice policies, there are a number of districts of all sizes who find such policies to be useful to allow families and the district to collaboratively have input over where to assign students to schools while also pursuing other district goals like diversity or equity.

Why does this matter? Research continues to point to the important benefits, particularly for students from historically disadvantaged groups, to attend diverse schools and avoid racially isolated schools, which the Supreme Court and federal government have endorsed as important goals of public schools. Several administrations have incentivized the growth of school choice, and many parents increasingly believe that they should have input into where their child attends school.  Yet, parents also want diverse schools.  However, given our still-segregated neighborhoods, we must be intentional about how we design choice policies.  As we have recently witnessed some of the failures of the market in our economic system and housing markets, we must also be careful about applying market-based policies like choice to complex systems like education, which have the possibility of transforming the life opportunities for children.

Some questions that are important to ask to consider the equity of school choice includes:

  • How is information about school choice options available to all potential consumers?  Is the information available in multiple languages and in ways that parents of all backgrounds could easily understand?
  • What kinds of schools are available to be chosen? Do they offer language programs, special education services, and the subsidized lunch program? (If not, these schools may not be able to serve all potential students.)
  • Is transportation freely provided?  Even providing parents reimbursement for transportation may limit availability.
  • What is the student, faculty, & staff composition?
  • Where is the school located? Where are they able to draw students from?
  • To what extent are application and/or discipline procedures used to steer some students away from enrolling or remaining at a school of choice?
  • Do schools reserve spots for eligible students who may be mobile and move into the catchment area after the application deadline?

This list gives some indication of the ways in which schools of choice turn into schools where the schools are choosing their student body instead of the reverse.

School choice is here to stay. If we are careful to design policy in ways that we try to provide high-quality school options for students from all backgrounds, it can help us to continue to work towards achieving the promise of Brown.

 For more information on this topic, see:

Orfield, G., & Frankenberg, E. (2013). Educational delusions? Why choice can deepen inequality and how to make it fair. University of California Press.

Lareau, A., & Goyette, K. (2014). Choosing Homes, Choosing Schools: Residential Segregation and the Search for a Good School. New York: Russell Sage.


Share This:


Leave a Reply