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Last year, a contentious zone change in New York City forced well-off parents to decide whether or not to integrate a high-poverty school. The exact-same scenario had played out a half-century earlier during the city’s brief attempt at school desegregation.
President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have a simple plan to make education great again: Give parents more choice. Trump released a budget outline in March that’s intended to expand the number of charter schools, pay for some students to attend private schools, and redirect federal funds to follow students to the public schools they select.
But even if Congress goes along with Trump’s plan, privileged parents will still have the most school options—a fact that isn’t great for poor families.
The main way well-off families choose schools is by choosing where to live. Increasingly, they’re settling in districts where most children look like theirs. “Rich districts are being created, and leaving middle-to-poor districts behind,” said Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, citing research she conducted with Sean Reardon of Stanford University and Christopher Jencks of Harvard. Students in some of the richest districts score four grade levels above their peers in the poorest districts, Reardon found. Even within diverse districts, rich and poor students—which often also means white and nonwhite students—are frequently sorted into separate schools. In their analysis of large districts, Owens, Reardon, and Jencks found that segregation between poor and non-poor students in public schools grew more than 40 percent from 1991 to 2012. Rising residential segregation by income has fueled that growth, as most children attend their local public school.