To choice advocates, this separation of available school options from segregated housing systems is a key feature. To critics like Shedd, it raises tough questions about whether those newcomers help or harm a community. “What is a neighborhood without a school?” she asks. “What is a school without a neighborhood?”
Pearman and Swain’s national study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Sociology of Education, looked at four different types of school-choice programs: magnet schools, charter schools, private school vouchers, and open enrollment across school districts.
When school choices are limited, poor communities with more white people are the ones more likely to gentrify. When there are more school-choice options, though, it’s the neighborhoods with more people of color that are most likely to gentrify.
The effects were substantial: A predominantly non-white neighborhood’s chance of gentrification more than doubles, jumping from 18 percent to 40 percent when magnet and charter schools are available.
The study found no impact of the open-enrollment initiatives that allow students to cross school-district lines to attend school. Voucher programs, perhaps the most divisive of the school-choice options, had mixed effects.
The finding that wealthier families are more open to entering racially segregated neighborhoods if they can avoid the local schools isn’t necessarily surprising. Past research has demonstrated both that schools affect housing choices and that race is used by white families as a proxy for school quality. This is among the first studies to directly link school choice to gentrification, though the data can only suggest cause and effect.
The researchers note that they didn’t examine gentrifiers’ aversion to neighborhood schools, which could be based on accurate perceptions of school quality or misguided, racially biased assumptions.
The Charlotte study examines a similar phenomenon in one district in the early 2000s. Rules under the federal No Child Left Behind law meant that that when schools failed to meet certain progress benchmarks two years in a row, students in the school’s attendance zone received priority to attend other popular schools in the district. This made those areas attractive to families looking to get into favored schools and therefore primed for gentrification.
The researchers—Stephen Billings, Eric Brunner, and Stephen Ross—found that the policy led to increases in housing prices and meant homes were bought by higher-income families, compared to nearby areas where schools were not deemed failing.
It’s not clear whether students benefited from those options. Avoiding the neighborhood school may have boosted reading test scores, but had no effect in math, the study found.
The same school-choice programs that maintain or exacerbate school segregation can encourage residential integration. That could be a real positive, as there is evidence that growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods can hurt kids.