Public Management

How free school choice increases segregation

June 2, 2015

Professor Edith Hooge believes it is too shortsighted to dismiss the debate about the prevalence of segregation in education with a reflexive nod to the value of free school choice.

Image: © Nationale Beeldbank

Before Ascension Day two so-called “black” primary schools in Amsterdam sent their mostly non-white pupils out on the streets wearing white T-shirts featuring the text "Is this white enough for you?” on the front and  "Every child has the right to integrate" on the back. 

It was a provocative action aiming to highlight the problem of segregation. The pupil numbers at both schools are declining and the schools will soon have to close. The reason why parents choose other schools in the area is not the poor quality of teaching at those schools but the fact that they have too many “black” children, says the school board. Both “white” and “black” parents with a higher level of education and socio-economic status see this as a drawback, associating it with the poor quality of education and backwardness.

Parental choice

Segregation in education is not a recent phenomenon. Up until about the 1970s the segregation in education followed ideological and socio-economic lines. In later decades, as immigrants' children went to school, segregation became literally “colored,” because it was also based on ethnic-cultural differences. Because (often non-white) immigrants are overrepresented in the lower social groups of society, “black” has become synonymous with a lower socio-economic background and a lower level of education.

The reason for segregation in education is not just because schools reflect a homogeneous district population, it is also the (indirect) result of schools' admission practices. Segregation is mainly due to parental choice. The better the education of parents, the higher their socio-economic status, the broader their social networks, the better they can inform themselves, and the more consciously and actively they choose a school for their children. It is precisely the free school choice, as guaranteed by the Dutch constitution, that contributes to segregation in mixed neighborhoods. Parents from higher social classes actively choose and consciously send their children to “white” schools. This leaves children from the lower echelons of society behind in “black” schools. 

Better working and learning together

What exactly is wrong with segregation in education? Apart from emotional or politically motivated arguments, it is worth taking stock of what we know about this phenomenon.

Research in the Netherlands and abroad shows that segregation in education does not undermine the learning outcomes in literacy and numeracy, for example. In other words, children learn as much and as well at “black,” “white” or “mixed” schools. 
But there is a difference in the social development of children. It appears that children in mixed schools learn to work together better, to empathize better, and to use different perspectives better than in segregated schools. You could say that children learn how to “live together” less well in a segregated educational system. 

Is that a bad thing? It is for those who believe that social cohesion is important if we want to have a stable, prosperous society. It seems that, in 2015, such social cohesion is slowly but steadily declining. Social inequality in the Netherlands is, perhaps, not as bad as in the United States, where children grow up in a world that is segregated along all lines: housing, social networks, health, education, work, income, and so on. In his new book “Our Kids,” Robert Putnam describes how children from higher social classes start with a substantial advantage and are stimulated and helped in a variety of ways, including by their "white" schools. While children from the underclass (and their number is increasing) are left far behind and need to overcome many hurdles before they can “make it” on their own. 

How bad is segregation?

The Netherlands are also increasingly characterized by what the Institute for Social Research (SCP) and the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) recently described as an “uncomfortable” socio-cultural divide between people with lower and higher levels of education, where the already significant social distance increases further instead of decreasing and both groups avoid each other. The fact that the descendants of migrant workers from the 1960s are still overrepresented in the lower social classes also adds an ethnic-cultural dimension to these contrasts. 

All this gives plenty of food for thought about how “bad” we should consider the persistent segregation in our education system. It would be too shortsighted to dismiss the debate with a reflexive nod to the value of free school choice. Other social values, such as justice or equality, also deserve to be taken into consideration at this juncture. It takes courage for the government and politicians to explicitly consider these values in the public debate on segregation in education.

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