Is Public School 'Choice' Good for the Black Community?

March 12, 2012 — Northwestern University sociologist Mary Pattillo will give a talk that questions the assumptions, ideology and philosophy undergirding public school "choice" on Thursday, from 3:30 to 5 p.m., in the University of Virginia's Rouss Hall, room 403.


School choice is a public policy that allows parents to choose a district, charter or private school for their children to attend, regardless of residence and location, with the aim of better fulfilling students' needs and education priorities.

Sponsored by the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American and African Studies, the Curry School of Education and the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts & Sciences, the talk will draw data from two projects, Pattillo said. The first focuses on how black community leaders work with white leaders to bring school choice to a gentrifying black neighborhood in Chicago. The second interviews black parents navigating the landscape of public school choice. Findings highlight the complicated role that black community leaders play in both facilitating and hampering access to high-quality public education for low-income African-Americans.

Further findings suggest that socioeconomic differences influence not only who chooses, but also what black parents hope to gain when they do choose. While there is no definitive answer as to whether public school choice is good or bad for the black community, the research presents important empirical data that contribute to better understanding what is at stake in the educational policy of school choice, Pattillo said.

Her most recent book, "Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City" (2007, University of Chicago Press), examines conflict and consensus as one African-American neighborhood deals with gentrification and the transformation of public housing. The American Sociological Association gave the book the Park Best Book Award, and recognized her 1999 book, "Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class," with the Oliver Cromwell Cox Best Book Award.

Pattillo's current projects include a four-city study of the effects of housing on children's development, funded by the MacArthur Foundation; research on school and housing choice policies; and ongoing teaching and academic partnerships in Colombia, South America.

Pattillo, Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern, received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1997. She has published articles in American Sociological Review, Social Forces, Ethnic and Racial Studies and the Journal of Affordable Housing Research, among other journals. She is co-editor with Bruce Western of "Imprisoning America: The Social Effects of Mass Incarceration," published in 2004. Pattillo is a founding board member of Urban Prep Charter Academies Inc., a network of all-boys high schools in Chicago.