Can Choice Alleviate Discrimination in Schools?

Chapel Hill, North Carolina prides itself for being “the most progressive city in the south,” but last year, when North Carolina took a hard look at the state of racial equity in public schools, Chapel Hill residents got an unpleasant surprise. In the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system, African Americans were 10 times more likely to be suspended than white students. How could the discipline rates be so disproportionate in North Carolina’s most progressive enclave?

In fairness to Chapel Hill, education policy wonks have observed similar inequities across the US, although the national numbers are not as out-of-whack as in Chapel Hill. African-American students are 4 times more likely to be suspended nationally. However, it seems hard to argue that Chapel Hill’s African-American student population is significantly more disruptive than in other places. It seems likely that some black children face discrimination at the hands of the school district. So what might parents do if they feel that their child is caught in a discriminatory system? Well, what do customers usually do when they face discrimination?

Think for a minute about the power of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Although African Americans were paying customers of the Montgomery Bus Line, they faced discrimination on the buses. But still, as customers, they wielded an important power. By organizing other means of transportation (such as car pools), the black community of Montgomery was able to cause serious economic distress to the bus company, ultimately putting pressure on the systematic issue - Jim Crow laws that prohibited the bus company from allowing African Americans to sit with whites. One of the most important tools in ending Jim Crow on discriminatory public bus systems was African Americans’ ability to choose to opt-out.

So, what does the history of ending discrimination on public bus systems tell us about how parents might fight back against discrimination in public school systems?  Can’t they choose to opt out of the system if they fear their child faces discrimination? Actually, that would be hard to do in Chapel Hill for two reasons. First, opting out of riding the public bus is not a crime, but opting out of your school might be. Truancy laws generally require children to attend school. If you don’t send your child to school, social services can take your child away from you and give them to a foster parent who will send the child to school, as required. Of course, a parent might opt out of the public school system by sending their child to a charter school. North Carolina has 173 of them. Wouldn’t that be a way to opt out if you thought that the system discriminated against your child?

That brings us to the second problem for Chapel Hill parents. Even with all of those charter schools, none have been allowed to open in Chapel Hill. There are two charter schools with Chapel Hill mailing addresses, but both are actually in the Chatham County Public School District, and both had waiting lists this year to get in.

What choices are left if a parent thinks their child is being subjected to harsh and discriminatory disciplinary practices? Well, perhaps the only choice left is to move out of the school district. Would anyone do that? Well, we can’t say for sure, but consider these statistics: Between the last two censuses the black population of nearby Wake County (Raleigh) increased by 50%. The black population of adjacent Durham County (home of Duke University) rose 15%. The black population of Orange County (Chapel Hill) actually declined by over 2%. Chapel Hill is the most progressive town in the state. So, why are black families leaving?

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