Multi-case case study of controlled choice enrollment policies in K-12 public school districts

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2023-12

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School segregation and the resulting opportunity gaps continue to be a pressing national issue nearly 70 years after the Brown (1954) decision. Controlled choice enrollment policies are an attempt by school districts to give parents some level of choice in their child’s public school while also creating more integrated schools. This study is a multi-case case study of two districts in the same metropolitan area employing some type of controlled choice enrollment policy. The purpose of the study was to understand the controlled choice policies that were used to sort students into schools, as well as the related distribution of students into schools and equitable access. Findings include rich descriptions of the case districts, including the specific mechanisms districts used to decide which students had access to which schools, and the related demographic patterns. Also included in the findings are the beliefs of study participants specifically around the purpose of the choice policies, which centered around neoliberal market ideas, and conceptions of equity. While controlled choice is intended to provide more equitable access, findings indicate that it is not a clear solution to ongoing inequities in access. Policies, no matter how well intended, are enacted within systems that are already racialized. Furthermore, districts are racialized organizations nested within larger systems that are also already racialized. District leaders only have limited influence in integrating schools and providing equitable resources when they are situated within a society that supports neither of these things. However, findings from this study suggest that district policies can have some impact on equitable access, and district leaders should use the power that they have to make the changes that they can. My recommendations for policy change includes but are not limited to stopping policies that entrench racialized access to schools, while justifying these disparities with rationalizations of deservedness or merit.

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