Views on School Assignments, Diversity Are Similar – Even in Cities with Segregated Schools

A new study finds that adults in five Southern cities hold similar views regarding school assignments and the importance of diversity in K-12 schools – despite those cities having very different policies in place to support socioeconomic diversity in their school systems.

Specifically, the study looked at public sentiment in Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina; Louisville, Kentucky; Nashville, Tennessee; and Rock Hill, South Carolina.

“We wanted to know whether the dynamics surrounding diversity and school assignment vary across municipalities,” says Toby Parcel, first author of the paper and a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. “The way existing studies had been done made it difficult, if not impossible, to make meaningful comparisons.”

Discussions regarding diversity and school assignments are often intertwined because school assignments in some school districts are designed to ensure that there is socioeconomic diversity across the district, rather than concentrating affluent students in schools located in affluent neighborhoods or students from low-income households in schools located in poorer neighborhoods. However, in other districts, housing choice drives public school assignments. This effectively ties school expenditures to housing prices, contributing to school segregation by social class.

The researchers chose to focus on the upper South because there are many diverse municipalities, but there is significant variability in the diversity of school systems: some are desegregated, while others are at least partly resegregated.

For the study, researchers surveyed 5,302 adults (not just parents) across the five metropolitan areas. Specifically, the survey aimed to capture how people felt about school assignments and diversity in K-12 schools, and why they felt that way. Questions also explored what other concerns people had about school desegregation in their districts, as well as questions that could help researchers determine which social characteristics may be able to predict those concerns. The surveys were conducted in 2015.

“Broadly speaking, adults across all five areas supported diversity in schools,” Parcel says. “But they were concerned about uncertainty when school reassignment policies were in flux, and worried that reassignments could disrupt children’s learning and friendships. Adults also thought that navigating school assignments created challenges for families when there was uncertainty about school assignment policies.”

There were also a host of more specific findings related to the demographics of study participants. For example, people who identified as being politically conservative were more likely to favor neighborhood schools than their more liberal counterparts. And women were more concerned than men about uncertainties regarding possible school reassignment.

“Honestly, the results were surprising,” Parcel says. “We thought we’d find more differences in public sentiment, because schools in Charlotte and Nashville are more segregated than schools in Raleigh and Louisville. But we didn’t – people’s values and concerns were pretty consistent across locations.”

The recent study was inspired by a desire to replicate and expand on a 2011 study in Raleigh that explored the same issues. And they found that sentiments in Raleigh hadn’t changed much between 2011 and 2015 – though people in 2015 were less likely to view diversity and school reassignment as being at odds with each other than they were in 2011.

“Surveys and other means of collecting quantitative data are less expensive than they used to be,” Parcel says. “So we should be doing more of these quantitative, observational studies aimed at replicating earlier work. We wanted to highlight how this can be done, and the fact that replicating studies can provide real depth and insight into our work as social scientists.”

The paper, “Using Opinion Polling Data to Replicate Non-Experimental Quantitative Results Across Time and Space: An Exploration of Attitudes Surrounding School Desegregation and Resegregation Policies,” appears in the journal American Behavioral Scientist. The paper was co-authored by Virginia Riel, a former Ph.D. student and current lecturer at NC State; Shawn Bauldry of Purdue University; Roslyn Arlin Mickelson of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte; Stephen Samuel Smith of Winthrop University; and Madison Boden of the Virginia Department of Corrections.

The work was done with support from the National Science Foundation under grants SES 1528559, 1527285, and 1527762.

/Public Release. View in full here.