Building Bridges or Raising Walls? School Choice and the Distribution of Students Across Schools
Katharine Destler

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Western Washington University

Primary Discipline

Political Science
Since the first charter school opened in 1992, school choice has had a persistent, if at times uneven, rise throughout much of the country. In some cities, the majority of public school students attend a school other than the one assigned to them based on where they live. These changes have important implications for students’ and families’ social and economic opportunities and for their connections to each other, their neighborhoods, and their schools. Cox and Wilco write, “Indeed, if choice programs help to create social capital this may be reason enough to support them”(2008).Not all social capital is equal, however. Putnam has usefully distinguished bridging social capital, which unites diverse groups, from bonding social capital, which tightens links within groups to the possible detriment of cross-group relations (2001). By enabling families to opt into schools outside their neighborhood boundaries, public school choice programs may provide an alternative mechanism to bring together parents with distinct social and economic backgrounds. Yet school choice can also exacerbate social divisions by enabling families to self-segregate into homogenous communities.Research to date has been mixed (Bifulco & Ladd, 2007; Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, Wang, & Orfield, 2012; Gulosino & D’entremont, 2011; Kahlenberg & Potter, 2014; Ritter, Jensen, Kisida, & McGee, 2010Weiher & Tedin, 2002). We need to know more about whether, and under what conditions, school choice provides the base conditions for bridging and bonding social capital. Toward that end, this project asks:What is the relationship between school choice and the racial and economic composition of school communities?To answer this question, I combine quantitative analyses of national student enrollment data over multiple years with qualitative interviews of policymakers, school leaders, and community members in a select sample of American cities. By examining multiple sites, I move beyond questions of whether school choice perpetuates or mitigates segregation to identify the conditions under which school choice is most likely to foster bridges across groups.This project has significance for theory and for social policy. To the extent that schools of choice foster bonding social capital at the expense of bridging social capital, they may increase the isolation of underrepresented communities, thereby reinforcing inequality and social stratification. This isolation may undermine the ability of communities to organize on behalf of their children and may limit access to economic opportunities for both adults and children. Conversely, if school choice provides a means for greater bridging across diverse communities, it may enhance opportunities for parents, students and communities alike.
About Katharine Destler
Katharine Destler is Assistant Professor at the Political Science Department at Western Washington University. She specializes in public policy and American politics, with a focus on education policy, civic participation and policy implementation. She comes to Western from George Mason University, where she served as a faculty member in the School of Policy, Government and International Affairs. A former K-12 English and social studies teacher, she graduated from the Evans School of Public Affairs with a PhD in Public Policy and Management. She also holds an AB in Comparative Literature from Brown University and a Masters in English Teaching from the University of Virginia. Destler has published research on performance management policy, organizational climate, teacher pay, and charter school policy in a range of peer-reviewed journals. She is currently at work on a project that examines how race, class and diversity affect citizen involvement in schools. Professor Destler is committed to applied policy work. In the past, she has worked with both school districts and non-profit organizations, helping them not only design new policies but also manage the politics of enactment and implementation. At Western, Destler teaches courses on American politics, public policy and bureaucratic politics.

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