Private schools are the preserves of rich, white people, and if they weren’t around education would be more racially integrated. That’s probably the assumption many people have, and it could be what people reading about a recent Shanker Institute report on segregation in Washington, DC, might have gathered.
“It’s no secret that the District’s public schools are highly segregated, with a recent analysis showing that nearly three-quarters of black students attend schools where they have virtually no white peers,” began a Washington Post story on the Shanker analysis. “But a recent report examines the role that enrollment in private schools, which are disproportionately white, plays in the city’s segregation woes.” Similarly, a story on WAMU—a DC NPR affiliate—intoned: “’In a very loose sense,’ the authors explain, ‘D.C.’s private schools serve as the segregation equivalent of a suburb within a city.’ That’s because white students in D.C. tend to enroll in private schools.”
So are the city’s private schools really preserves of white people? And are they a big impediment to integration? The answer appears to be “no” to both questions.
Importantly, the Shanker report, while saying that a disproportionate share of private school students are white, also noted that African-American students in private schools had greater exposure to white students than black children in public schools, an indicator that for African-American kids in private schools the racial mix is less isolating. The typical black student in a DC public school (traditional and charter) goes to an institution in which only 3.5 percent of students are white. For the typical black private schooler, the student body is 24.5 percent white.
Those numbers indicate greater exposure to whites for African American private schoolers, but that the latter is not a much higher number also indicates that many African Americans attend private schools that are predominantly minority, which the WAMU story notes at the very bottom: “While there are fewer students of color in private schools, when they do attend private school it’s usually with students who look like them. 65 percent of an African-American student’s peers in D.C. private schools are also African-American.”
Contrary to what many people likely imagine, DC’s private schooling sector is not lily white: private schools serve all sorts of kids. Breaking down the city’s 63 private elementary and secondary schools using National Center for Education Statistics and GreatSchools.org data indicates that almost half—31 schools—serve predominantly minority student bodies, defined as more than 50 percent black and Hispanic. Roman Catholic schools—which have traditions of serving first dispossessed Catholics, then other poor and marginalized groups—disproportionately serve such populations, with 58 percent of Catholic schools doing so. Catholic schools, especially diocesan institutions, also tend to be less expensive than non-Catholic schools, making them more affordable to African Americans and Hispanics, who tend to have lower incomes.
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