Students of diverse colors and backgrounds work on a project in a Detroit-area Lutheran school.
While government-run public schools are generally considered to have a more diverse mix
of students than private schools, a new study of student interactions in the lunchrooms of
both reveals that private schools offer a more racially integrated environment than do
The more extensive integration at private schools takes place because private school
attendance is not as closely linked to where a student lives as is the case with public
schools, which tend to reflect and reinforce racial segregation in housing.
"Because private schools do not require that their students live in particular
neighborhoods, they can more easily overcome segregation in housing to provide integration
in school," explain Jay P. Greene and Nicole Mellow of the University of Texas at
Austin. Their study, "Integration Where It Counts: A Study of Racial Integration in
Public and Private School Lunchrooms," was presented in September at the American
Political Science Association Meeting in Boston.
Rather than simply looking at the racial makeup of a school, Greene and Mellow devised
a procedure to capture the extent to which integration is producing positive social
interaction. Using a sample of 19 public and 19 private schools, they observed the
interactions of over 4,300 students in school lunchrooms, recorded where students sat by
race, and calculated the percentage of students who had a student of a different racial
group among one of the five students sitting next to or across from them.
The researchers found that while almost two-thirds (63.5 percent) of private school
students were in an integrated lunchroom setting, less than half (49.7 percent) of public
school students were in a similarly integrated setting. Put another way, slightly more
than one-third (36.5 percent) of private school students sit in groups where everyone is
of the same race, whereas a little more than half (50.3 percent) of public school students
sit entirely surrounded by people of their own racial group.
"We should no longer accept unquestioningly the widely held view that public
schools are better at integration than private schools," conclude Greene and Mellow.
"If we are serious about the benefits of racially heterogenous school
experiences," the two note, then policy proposals that would "detach schooling
from housing" such as school choice programs should be given serious consideration.
Such policies could promote integration without the risk that school failure would damage
These findings will require some rethinking on the part of school choice opponents, who
regularly cite public school integration as a key argument against voucher programs. The
National PTA, for example, claims vouchers and tuition tax credits "would promote
division and separation within the community and negate the long struggle to desegregate
our schools and our society." The American Federation of Teachers claims that
"educational choice leads to greater socioeconomic and racial segregation of
"Without public schools," warns the Center on Education Policy,
"children would most likely today attend schools that reflected their own racial,
ethnic, religious, or economic background, much as in churches, social organizations, and
other groups people join voluntarily."
That view "is deeply held by many people," note Greene and Mellow, "but
it is unfortunately supported by little empirical evidence."
Reprinted with permission from School Reform News.