Seeing Merit as a Vehicle for Opportunity and Equity: Youth Respond to School Choice Policy

Abstract

School choice policy is ubiquitous in urban school districts. Evidence suggests that it has not fully delivered on its proponents’ promises of equitable educational opportunity. While scholars and policymakers scrutinize data to determine school choice’s equity outcomes, little attention has been paid to how school choice policy directly influences youth understanding of educational equity and opportunity. This study therefore explores how youth who engage with school choice policy come to understand and act upon the distribution of educational opportunities, and the extent to which their understandings and actions vary by social identity, family resources, school resources and admissions outcomes. 36 youth, engaged in the high school choice process, participated in this study, which is guided by policy enactment theory. Across subgroups, participants overwhelmingly valued merit as the best principle by which to distribute educational opportunity. Alongside this near-universal embrace of merit and widespread participation in choice policy-required actions, those who accessed the highest-performing schools often did so by activating non-academic resources that required financial capital. These findings highlight a shared ritual that serves to instantiate and reinforce ideals of meritocracy. Findings inform our discussion of school choice policy’s educational equity and civic implications.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    CPS uses U.S. Census data, divides all tracts in Chicago equally into four socioeconomic tiers. Data used to rank each census tract are: median family income, adult educational attainment, percentage of single-parent households, percentage of home-ownership, percentage of the population that speaks a language other than English, and a school performance variable calculated from the tract’s schools’ standardized test scores. CPS identified students’ socioeconomic tiers according to the address listed on their high school application.

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Acknowledgments

Funding was provided by Spencer Foundation (Grant No. #201400022). The authors would like to thank Joseph Ferrare for his comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Kate Phillippo.

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Phillippo, K., Griffin, B., Del Dotto, B.J. et al. Seeing Merit as a Vehicle for Opportunity and Equity: Youth Respond to School Choice Policy. Urban Rev (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11256-020-00590-y

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Keywords

  • School choice policy
  • Urban education policy
  • Urban youth
  • Equity
  • Merit
  • Meritocracy
  • Educational opportunity
  • Policy enactment theory