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.” Working paper under review.

The market theory motivating school choice policy assumes that empowering families with greater enrollment flexibility will make access to educational opportunity less dependent on residential location and, ultimately, more equitable. This perspective downplays how much families are constrained by the options they can practically access as well as their tendencies to prioritize racial composition over quality. Using administrative student records from Michigan—where school choice is widespread—we ground market optimism in social reality. Our discrete choice model and counterfactual decomposition reveals that where families live and the school options accessible to them account for 83% of Black-White school segregation and 94% of the Black-White gap in peer academic environment. By parsing how much neighborhood educational access and family enrollment decisions each contribute to these macro-level outcomes, this study reveals the continued salience of residential segregation underpinning public schools and clarifies why the proposed benefit of market empowerment rings hollow.

Note: This research result used data structured and maintained by the Michigan Education Research Institute’s -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.

The changing racial composition of city school districts over the 1970s and 1980s is often attributed to desegregation policies that propelled White families to move to the suburbs. This study verifies this causal hypothesis by following individual family residential patterns before, during, and after desegregation orders were implemented locally. But White flight is only part of the story. Using microsimulations to examine the scale of desegregation effects on population change, I uncover a surprising sociological twist–one that corrects simplistic narratives about this period and that holds lessons for contemporary policy debates.

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.