Poor Kids In Chicago Have More Options For Where To Go To School, But That's Not Necessarily Good

"Not having to participate in this complicated system is really a privilege."

Long gone are the days when poor children in Chicago got trapped in failing neighborhood schools. Nowadays, families from low-income neighborhoods are more likely to send their kids to a greater range of types of schools than families from affluent areas, according to research from a Johns Hopkins University professor. But that doesn't necessarily mean these kids always get a richer educational experience. 

Using 2008-2009 data from Chicago eighth-graders about to enter high school, Johns Hopkins University professor Julia Burdick-Will tracked where students chose to attend school and compared it to the median income in their neighborhood. Burdick-Will, who presented her findings in late August to the American Sociological Association, found that children in affluent neighborhoods were more likely to go to school close to home, while lower-income students were more likely to leave their neighborhood by way of charter and open-enrollment schools.

Over the past few decades, Chicago has been at the forefront of education reform efforts, opening a sizable number of new charter and magnet schools that allow students to get an education outside their neighborhoods. In the fall of 2009, Burdick-Will found, 32 percent of students in the Chicago Public Schools decided to attend schools in their neighborhood. Most of these students came from affluent families, whose parents could afford the luxury of being deliberate in where they chose to live. Poorer children, on the other hand, typically chose to travel farther distances for school. 

This phenomenon is displayed in the graphic below. 

The idea that poor Chicagoans frequently leave their neighborhood for education contradicts the perception that low-income kids are often "trapped in underperforming local schools," according to Burdick-Will's paper on the subject. This perception often drives the arguments of school reform advocates in Chicago who push for greater school choice options.

"These findings suggest that there is room for much more heterogeneity in educational experiences within poor neighborhoods than is generally acknowledged," according to Burdick-Will's paper on the subject. "In poor neighborhoods school choice and parent resourcefulness combine in ways that break the link between residential and educational sorting."

Still, the fact that low-income families are more likely to exercise school choice should not be seen as a positive. The ability to not have to search for schools outside your neighborhood is the real privilege, said Burdick-Will. 

"Not having to participate in this complicated system is really a privilege. The most advantaged people really don’t have to figure out how to read the Chicago high school book. They don’t have to gather the information or spend a lot of time figuring out if charter school A is better than charter school B," she said.

She continued, "We tend to think of more money as more options and the problem with poverty as having less options. But some of it is reversed. Part of having resources is not having to. Life is simpler. There aren’t as many tradeoffs between finding a good housing unit and a good school."

Of the kids who exercised school choice to go to institutions outside their neighborhoods, many of them ended up in better schools. But not all of them.

Fifteen percent of students who chose to leave their neighborhood for school went to an institution that was objectively worse than the one they lived by, according to "freshman on-track rates." Seventy-two percent of kids end up in schools with higher test scores. 

When kids live in areas where most people opt not to attend a neighborhood school, they are more likely to choose poorly and attend a school that is worse than the one to which they've been assigned, Burdick-Will found. 

"I think there’s a sense of 'anywhere but here,'" said Burdick-Will of neighborhoods with high rates of educational heterogeneity. "You don’t know how what’s better and what’s not. Everyone is scattering so there’s no clear information about where to go."

The implications of how increased school choice impacts community bonds are still unclear. 

There is "potential for less social interaction among neighbors," said Burdick-Will. "Also, kids traveling long distances to school maybe less likely to participate in a late after school program. [They are] possibly just more socially isolated in general."