Are School Choice Laws Causing Racial Segregation In Our Local Schools?

by Chaylee N. Brock

We were recently made aware of and directed toward Department of Education data regarding the number of children enrolled in Marion Community Schools, and, more specifically, the number of students who live within the MCS district but choose to enroll in other, outside schools.

The DOE data for Marion Schools is fascinating to consider. It seems to show that enrollment numbers and demographics within the student population have been changing and becoming more diverse over the last ten years, but what’s behind these changes?

Public school enrollment numbers and demographics seem to be changing not just in Marion Community Schools but in public schools all across the country. Education professionals are both alarmed and concerned about newly emerging trends, which seem to show that public schools nationwide are becoming racially segregated. It’s questionable whether or not this modern-day segregation was intentional, but it seems to be taking shape following a number of education policies passed by both federal and state governments.

Are we seeing that same racial segregation trend happening right here in Grant County?

Does that explain the gradual shift in demographics seen at MCS?

Are the decisions families are making to either leave or shun Marion Community Schools (the most diverse school district in Grant County) racially-motivated?

If the changes in demographics at Marion Community Schools are taking place due to racially-motivated reasons, it wouldn’t be the first school system to grapple with such issues. The growing prevalence of modern-day racial segregation seems to coincide with the passing of school choice and voucher programs all across America, both of which were signed into law in Indiana in 2011. These trends seem to be happening everywhere.

Those who argue that this modern-day segregation exists and is growing worse often claim that affluent, mostly-white families tend to have both the ability and desire to send their children to smaller, suburban or rural schools, as well as private schools, which all tend to have a higher white population and have a reputation of providing a better education. It’s the school choice and school voucher programs that make these decisions possible, allowing students to cross district lines or even receive financial help to afford private school tuition.

Removing the more affluent and/or white students from a school tends to leave poorer, more disadvantaged students in the larger public schools, which tend to be more diverse and have a reputation (true or not) for lacking in the quality of education they provide.

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, formerly a Senior Fellow in the Center on Children and Families in the Economic Studies program at the Brookings Institution, is just one concerned professional who has been looking into the possibility of school choice programs causing modern-day school segregation. In a report published by the Brookings Institute, Whitehurst explains that professionals in this field have found “a substantive positive correlation between how friendly districts are to school choice and the degree to which their high schools are racially imbalanced for blacks and whites.”

Whitehurst also explains in his report that his research findings “[are] consistent with the hypothesis that school district policies that allow parents to easily choose a school for their children can lead to schools that are more segregated than would be the case if school assignment were based entirely on zip code.” (You can read more about the findings of the Brookings Institute regarding school segregation here: https://www.brookings.edu/research/new-evidence-on-school-choice-and-racially-segregated-schools/)

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While there is ample evidence that shows school choice and voucher programs can lead (and has led) to racially segregated schools around the country, are we starting to see that phenomenon here, in our own local school systems?

We decided to look into these issues, but after sifting through all the information and data we had access to, we ultimately found that we could not determine whether or not modern-day segregation is happening in our local schools. We simply do not have enough data to make such a definitive claim. However, we did find the data from the Indiana Department of Education and the U.S. Census Bureau fascinating, so we decided to present it to our audience in the form of an article and let them decide for themselves as to what’s going on right here in Grant County.

We started our examination of the events happening in Grant County schools by diving deep into the data provided on a yearly basis to the Indiana Department of Education. First, we looked into the enrollment numbers and demographic make-up within the MCS school district.

WhiteBlackHispanicOtherTotal
201619778174316233848
201719368654586393898
201819278034686133811
201919648194566243863
202019108215116353877
Marion Community Schools Enrollment Numbers by Year

At first, it seemed that there was no significant change in enrollment numbers over the last five years, but when we looked at the enrollment numbers over the last ten years, a trend started to take shape.

White:Black:Hispanic:Other:Total:
201025128652716674315
201123228282866774113
201222428153046564017
201320868093356133843
201419917613546213727
201519347353805963645
Marion Community Schools Enrollment Numbers by Year

As you can see, the number of white students enrolled at MCS dropped significantly between 2010 and 2020, while the number of black students enrolled stayed fairly steady, and the number of Hispanic students continually increased.

To make these trends a little clearer, we figured the demographic percentages of the school’s yearly enrollment numbers.

WhiteBlackHispanicOther
201058.2%20%6.3%15.5%
201156.4%20.1%7%16.5%
201255.8%20.3%7.6%16.3%
201354.2%21.1%8.7%16%
201453.4%20%9.5%17.1%
201553.1%20.2%10.4%16.3%
201651.3%21.2%11.2%16.3%
201749.6%22.2%11.7%16.5%
201850.5%21.1%12.3%16.1%
201950.8%21.2%11.8%16.2%
202049.2%21.2%13.2%16.4%
Marion Community Schools Demographic Enrollment Percentages by Year

The number of white students enrolled at MCS dropped by 9%, while the number of black students stayed steady, and the number of Hispanic students nearly doubled.

How can we account for these shifts?

One possible explanation is the law that was passed in the state of Indiana in 2011, which gave families the opportunity to choose which public school (or even private school) they wanted their children to attend, free of tuition and fees, even if their choice school was outside of the district in which the family lived. Could that be why white enrollment at MCS dropped nine percentage points, starting around 2011?

When we dug further into the DOE data, we found statistics labeled “Public Transfers: Parent Choice,” which seems to suggest the numbers in that category represent the number of children transferring to or from a school, as decided by the child’s parents. However, we quickly realized that the students represented by these numbers had not necessarily been previously enrolled in MCS. These “transfer” numbers actually represent the number of students who live within the Marion Community Schools district but have chosen to enroll in other schools. So, instead of actually leaving MCS, it seems these children in particular are members of a trend that’s been developing over the last decade — these students simply chose to not attend school in their home district. This means it’s possible that MCS didn’t “lose” these students, per se, because they never had them enrolled in the first place.

The Public Transfers: Parent Choice data shows that, out of all the children living within the Marion Community Schools district during the 2019-2020 school year, 378 chose to attend Oak Hill schools, 557 chose to attend Mississinewa schools, and 208 chose to attend Eastbrook schools.

While these transfer numbers are not broken down into demographics by Indiana’s Department of Education, we can make the assumption that the drop in white student enrollment shown above could correlate to the number of “transfers” to schools outside of the MCS district. This assumption is further bolstered by the fact that the drop in white enrollment numbers took place following 2011, which is the year the school choice laws went into effect. This means it’s reasonable to deduce that white families decided to move their children elsewhere when given the chance.

Those who argue against the idea that modern-day segregation in schools exist often claim that the reduction of white kids in public schools has nothing to do with school choice laws being passed, but instead points to the declining number of white people living in America overall, and the subsequently growing number of Americans who identify as people of color.

It is true that the white population is slowly dwindling, and that the population of people of color in America is steadily rising, so we decided to take a look at the population and demographic information for the city of Marion, to see if that trend is taking place locally.

WhiteBlackHispanicTotal Population
200079.84%15.37%3.60%31,772
201078.14%14.71%5.53%29,948
201978.9%15.20%6.30%27,930
City of Marion Demographic Breakdown According to the U.S. Census

White population percentages in Marion stay consistent from 2000-2019, so the city population numbers do not account for the 9% drop in white enrollment in Marion Community Schools. The number of white people in Marion only dropped one percentage point in 19 years, so why did white enrollment at MCS drop by nine percentage points in a span of ten years?

Black population percentages in Marion also stay consistent between 2000 and 2019, which is reflected by the consistent percentages of black enrollment in Marion Community Schools.

The Hispanic population percentages in Marion nearly double from 2000-2019, which is reflected by the increase of Hispanic enrollment in Marion Community Schools.

Given this data, the argument that the decrease in white enrollment at Marion Community Schools is due to a decrease in white residential population within the school district does not hold water.

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We decided it might be best to reach out to those parents whose children live within the MCS district but chose to send them to other schools, to get an idea as to why they made those decisions for their families. We heard back from approximately 15 families, who gave us a range of reasons for their decisions.

Some of the more popular answers included:

  • Fights/drama/violence at Marion Community Schools
  • Poorer quality of education at MCS
  • Parent disagreements with disciplinary methods used at MCS
  • How teachers interact with and treat students at MCS
  • Poorer quality of special-education programs at MCS

Given the fact that parents told us they believed their students would receive a better education by sending their child outside of the MCS district, we decided to take a look at the most recent evaluations MCS and other county schools received, both at the state and federal levels.

2019State School GradeFederal School Grade
Marion High SchoolBApproaches expectations
Justice IntermediaryDDoes not meet expectations
McCulloch Junior HighFDoes not meet expectations
Allen ElementaryBApproaches expectations
Kendall ElementaryCApproaches expectations
Riverview ElementaryAMeets expectations
Frances Slocum ElementaryBApproaches expectations
2019State School GradeFederal School Grade
Mississinewa High SchoolAApproaches expectations
RJ Baskett Middle SchoolCApproaches expectations
Westview ElementaryCApproaches expectations
Northview ElementaryCApproaches expectations
2019State School GradeFederal School Grade
Eastbrook High SchoolAMeets expectations
Upland ElementaryCMeets expectations
Van Buren ElementaryCApproaches expectations
Eastbrook Junior HighBApproaches expectations
2019State School GradeFederal School Grade
Madison-Grant Jr./Sr. High SchoolBMeets expectations
Park ElementaryCApproaches expectations
Summitville SchoolCMeets expectations
State School GradeFederal State Grade
Oak Hill High SchoolNot AvailableNot Available

Here are the most recently recorded graduation rates at each Grant County school:

WhiteBlackHispanic
Marion High School91.24%97.26%91.67%
Mississinewa High School89.94%
Eastbrook High School96.35%
Madison-Grant High School95.51%
Oak Hill High School91.60%

While Marion’s McCulloch and Justice leave much to be desired in performance, Marion High School’s graduation rates are above 90% for white, black, and Hispanic students, putting MHS on the same level as (or even above) the other county schools. Aside from the two aforementioned schools within the MCS district, Marion schools overall seem to be fairly in-line with the state and federal evaluations of other county schools, as well.

So, if the quality of education at Marion schools is similar to that of the other schools, that leaves us with the second-most reported reasoning parents gave for sending their children out of the district: the violence that takes place at MCS.

While there does seem to be a perceived difference in the amount of violence between Marion schools and other county schools, could the demographic differences serve as an explanation?

A research article published on the website for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) explains that the data they’ve collected shows “black students are more likely to be seen as problematic and more likely to be punished than white students are for the same offense.” The article continues by saying “[i]n comparison with white Americans, black Americans exhibit poorer educational outcomes across a range of metrics.”

These facts pointed out by PNAS may also factor into the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which has become a passionate topic of discussion for Americans (mostly politicians) in recent years. The idea behind the so-called pipeline is that black children are often treated as criminals within their own schools, suffering more frequent and harsher punishment than their white counterparts, and that type of treatment contributes to the steering of black children toward a life of crime and, ultimately, prison.

An article from the Justice Policy Institute claims that “[b]lack students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, according to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, and research in Texas found students who have been suspended are more likely to be held back a grade and drop out of school entirely,” which only increases a child’s likelihood of acting out, behaving violently, and not receiving a quality education. These consequences often turn into a future inability to find a decent job or decent living, and they can ultimately lead to the person exhibiting behaviors and adopting lifestyles that could someday land them in prison.

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We tried to obtain disciplinary records from Marion Community Schools, to see whether or not the nationwide trend of students of color facing more frequent and harsher punishment holds true here locally, but we were not able to get our hands on any such records. Nevertheless, it can’t be ignored that the Grant County school with the highest population of minority students is also known to be the most violent or dangerous in the county.

The question is: are Marion Community Schools truly more violent, or is that merely a perception caused by disparities in school punishments based on the race of the student in question?

Without more data, it’s impossible to make that conclusion, but if the national research data holds up in our own, local schools, it’s a possibility. If punishments vary in severity, based solely on race, then of course it would appear that Marion schools are more violent. The perception becomes “more racial diversity, more violence.”

As stated at the beginning of this piece, those of us at Channel 27 News cannot state whether or not racial segregation is happening in our local schools, because there simply is not enough data. Technically, we could spend more time interviewing parents and finding out why they chose to send their children outside of the school district in which they reside, but even if, deep down, those decisions are being made by white parents due to the racial diversity within Marion Community Schools, it seems doubtful that many of those parents would be willing to openly admit it.

We’ve instead provided you with all the information and data we could get our hands on, we’ve given you the arguments from all sides, and we’re leaving it up to you to draw your own conclusions. There does seem to be a racial shift taking place in our local schools, but what’s driving that shift is not for us to determine.

If we receive additional information, especially the data we’ve requested from MCS regarding disciplinary records, we will update this article.


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