Working Papers

Please email Peter for copies of these working papers:

Rich, Peter and Christian Sprague. “Separate and Unequal Options: Neighborhood Educational Access in the Era of School Choice.” Under review.

Contemporary school choice policies provide families with a new pathway to satisfy schooling preferences for their children, in addition to (or perhaps instead of) their residential location decisions. This market-oriented policy terrain unravels the classic narrative that residential segregation “de facto” translates into Black-White school segregation, but to what extent remains unclear. To investigate this question empirically, we introduce a student-level discrete choice model and counterfactual simulation that decomposes Black-White segregation and enrollment inequality into its parts, parsing the relative influence of a) family enrollment decisions based on their school preferences from b) the neighborhood educational access afforded by where they live. We analyze administrative records for the full population of 4th grade students attending Michigan public schools in 2015-16 and find that residential segregation and neighborhood educational access accounts for 73% of total Black-White school segregation, while the remaining 27% is explained almost entirely by families prioritizing racial composition given their available options. Inequality in neighborhood educational access accounts for nearly all of the Black-White gap in school peer academic environment. Rather than addressing barriers to equal educational opportunity, choice policies enable racial segregation and inequality to persist via decentralized processes while obscuring their spatial, institutional, and historical roots.

Note: This research result used data structured and maintained by the MERI-Michigan Education Data Center (MEDC). MEDC data is modified for analysis purposes using rules governed by MEDC and are not identical to those data collected and maintained by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) and/or Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information (CEPI). Results, information, and opinions solely represent the analysis, information and opinions of the authors and are not endorsed by, or reflect the views or positions of, grantors, MDE, and CEPI or any employee thereof. The authors benefitted from support by the Cornell Center for the Study of Inequality Faculty Grant Program (2020-21), the Cornell Center for Social Sciences Fellows Program (2020-21), and by the excellent graduate research assistance of Haowen Zheng.

Rich, Peter. “Policy Backlash or Structural Inertia? A Micro-Macro Analysis of White Residential Decline from Desegregating City School Districts Between 1970 and 1990.” Working Paper.

School desegregation plans are credited for exacerbating White suburbanization in the 1970s and 1980s, but this understanding draws from population-level causal estimates prone to ecological fallacy. This is the first study to systematically investigate whether White families were more likely to exit and more likely to avoid moving into city school districts because of mandated desegregation. Using annual family residential addresses from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, geocoded by block and linked to school districts, I find that White residential exit did increase slightly in response to desegregation policy. In a micro-macro simulation model, however, I show that this small effect paled in comparison to a) the influence of White avoidance–both pre and post desegregation implementation, and b) demographic differences in the fertility and age profiles of suburban and urban residents established in prior decades. White population loss from city school districts was the result of structural inertia rather than an unintended consequence of desegregation policy. This conclusion has implications for the contemporary politics of structural reform, where fear of perverse incentives looms large. The tendency to analyze either micro-level policy responses or population-level trends, without linking the two, can reify assumptions and conceal complex sociological forces undertow.

An earlier version of this paper received multiple American Sociological Association student paper awards. An updated analysis is being prepared for journal submission.

Rich, Peter, Haowen Zheng, and Christian Sprague. “Inequality in the Competition for Access to High-Achieving and High-Growth Schools Across Metropolitan Area Housing Markets.” Working paper.

Despite the well-documented and highly theorized link between family resources, residential location, and access to high-achieving public schools, past research has not measured how this relationship varies across metropolitan area housing markets. In this study, we fill this gap using a novel, highly granular dataset of Zillow housing sales records linked to block-level measures of the average academic achievement and growth scores of locally accessible schools. Across the 156 largest metropolitan areas, we find wide variation in the relationship between house price and access to school academic achievement. This variation is not merely explained by differences in absolute housing costs; it also reflects differential arrangements in the structure of local housing and education markets. These descriptive findings have broad implications at the intersection of inequality, residential segregation, and education research.

Rich, Peter. “Race, Resources, and Test-Scores: What Schooling Characteristics Motivate the Housing Choices of White and Black Parents?” Working paper.

Does the racial composition of local schools impact where parents choose to live? Using a discrete choice model with geocoded household addresses from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, I compare where mobile parents and non-parents move and how their decisions vary by race and neighborhood characteristics. White parents are especially likely to sort into school districts and neighborhoods with mostly-white student populations. The behavior is independent of sorting by home-ownership and by neighborhoods’ average home size, cost, income, unemployment, poverty, and proximity to commercial districts. In contrast, black housing selection trends toward neighborhoods with integrated schools and does not vary between parents and non-parents. Crucially, school factors—poverty level, class size, per pupil funding, and test scores—fail to explain white parents’ distinct inclination toward neighborhoods with segregated white public schools. As white parents secure perceived educational advantages for their own children, they express and fortify a legacy of racial inequality.

Note: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1519017. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.  Geographic crosswalks are available here.