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Do Choice Policies Segregate Schools?

BOULDER, CO (March 31, 2016) – School choice advocates have contended from the outset that choice policies would advance integration by giving students the opportunity to attend a school outside of highly segregated neighborhoods. In a new brief, Do Choice Policies Segregate Schools?, authors William J. Mathis and Kevin Welner of the National Education Policy Center examine the research evidence. They conclude that, while choice policies might be designed and implemented in ways that advance integration, this has not been done—and the result has been increased stratification by race, ethnicity, special needs status, income and first language.

While some choice school enrollments are integrated, the authors contend, the research literature documents an “unsettling degree of segregation – particularly in charter schools.” Choice advocates, Mathis and Welner note, are correct in pointing to the need to address school segregation due to housing policies and school district boundaries, which would result in segregated schools even without school choice. But unregulated choice policies lack the necessary “guardrails”—rules that should be included within those policies and designed to ensure accomplishment of a community’s goals. Without protections against unconstrained segregative choices, stratification is often exacerbated, not mitigated.

Mathis and Welner provide recommendations for policymakers to advance desegregation in order to provide equal educational opportunities for all students:

  1. The expansion or renewal of charter schools and other forms of school choice should be contingent on law and policies that result in equal opportunities for all. 
  2. Current choice laws and policies should be realigned to ensure diversity, by including constraints on stratification caused by unlimited choice. These choice policies should be the result of deliberate policy choices grounded in our larger societal goals for our schools, including the valuing of diverse communities and integration of socioeconomic levels, race, and language. 
  3. For all choice plans, viable choices should be available, practical and convenient for a community’s least advantaged families.
  4. Municipalities should assure socioeconomic and racial diversity in their housing plans and codes, rather than placing the sole burden on schools to overcome larger patterns of segregation.

Welner is Director and Mathis is Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. This brief is the fourth in a series of concise publications, Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking, that takes up a number of important policy issues and identifies policies supported by research. Each section focuses on a different issue, and its recommendations to policymakers are based on the latest scholarship.

Find William Mathis and Kevin Welner's brief on the NEPC website at:

This policy brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: