Valuingdiversity1
What Americans say about…

Valuing diversity in public schools

Most parents value racial/ethnic and economic diversity in schools - but they don't believe it's worth a longer commute to school.

Parents of school-aged children see racial and economic diversity in the classroom as positives in general — but fewer are persuaded of their importance or practical value, and most don’t see school diversity as worthy of a longer commute.  

Seven in 10 parents overall say they would rather see their child attend a school where the student body is racially diverse, with 49% feeling that way strongly. However: 

  • Fewer (55%) say it’s very or extremely important that schools have a mix of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds — with sharp racial divisions in this view.
  •  Just more than half say that such a mix of students improves the learning environment.  
  • But only one-quarter of parents say that they’d like their child to attend a racially diverse school and that they’d accept a longer commute to do it. 

Results are similar on economic diversity, albeit more muted: Sixty-one percent of parents say they would rather their child attend a school where the student body is economically diverse, with 36% feeling that way strongly. But fewer than half call this highly important (45%) or think it improves the learning environment. And only 20% both desire economic diversity and say they’d accept a longer commute for their child to obtain it. 

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The perceived importance of diversity

The poll reveals stark divisions on the perceived importance of racial and ethnic diversity in public schools. Blacks, Democrats, and liberals value diversity most highly, as do those who also value economic diversity.

Seventy-two percent of black parents say that having a mix of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds is extremely or very important, declining to 57% of Hispanics and 48% of whites. This gap is even wider between Democrats (70%) and Republicans (38%), with independents in between. Liberals (72%) and conservatives (43%) differ widely as well. In statistical modeling, political party affiliation consistently is the strongest predictor of this viewpoint (controlling for demographics, political ideology, and attitudes about school quality).

Parents living in the South are 16 points more likely than those in the Northeast to rate racial and ethnic diversity in the schools as very or extremely important, and those in the West are more apt than those in the Northeast or Midwest to find such diversity extremely important (35% vs. 20% and 21%, respectively). These regional differences hold up in statistical modeling before controlling for the importance of different aspects of school quality. 

Perceptions of the level of racial and ethnic diversity in one’s community also play an important role in predicting the view that diverse schools are important. There are no significant differences by gender, age, or income once these perceptions are taken into account.

There’s also a very strong connection between support for economic and racial diversity. Ninety percent of those who say economic diversity is highly important say the same about racial diversity, compared with 35% of those who say economic diversity is just somewhat important, and just 19% of those who say it’s not so important or not important at all.

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Effect on the learning environment

The number who call racial and ethnic diversity highly important (55%) is very similar to the numbers who say such diversity improves the learning environment: Fifty-five percent see it as a positive for black and Hispanic students, 51% for white students.

There’s a great deal of overlap: Among those who say this kind of diversity is highly important, 72% also say it improves the learning environment for minority students, and 68% say it improves the learning environment for white students. This drops to 17% for both groups among those who see racial and ethnic diversity as less important or not important at all. 

Saying that racial and ethnic diversity in public schools improves the learning environment for black and Hispanic students peaks among college graduates (68%), those who expect their child to go to college full time (63%), and those earning $50,000 a year (62%). Results are generally similar on views of the learning environment for white students.

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In the sharpest racial/ethnic difference, Hispanics are much less likely than whites or blacks to say that racial diversity improves the learning environment for white students: Just 33% of Hispanics feel this way, compared with 59% of blacks and 51% of whites. In terms of the learning environment for minority students, Hispanics are numerically less likely than whites and blacks to say diversity helps, but this difference does not reach statistical significance.

Preferring a racially diverse school peaks among blacks (78%), compared with 61% of Hispanics and 70% among whites. And 62% of blacks feel this way strongly, compared with 45% of whites and 44% of Hispanics. Blacks also are most likely to say they’d accept a longer commute for a more diverse school: 41% do so vs. 23% of whites and 17% of Hispanics. 

In political terms, moderates are most likely to prefer a racially diverse student body —81% say so, compared to 71% of liberals and 64% of conservatives.

Differences by party identification and ideology widen on strong preferences for one’s child to attend a racially diverse school. Fifty-nine percent of Democrats and 51% of independents feel this way vs. 32% of Republicans. So do 56% of liberals and 57% of moderates, compared with 39% of conservatives.  

More Democrats (36%), liberals (36%), and moderates (31%) express commitment to this goal, saying they’d accept a longer commute for a more diverse school. That compares with 23% of Republicans, 21% of independents, and 18% of conservatives.

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Economic diversity

Economic diversity has somewhat less of a constituency; 45% of parents see this as extremely or very important. About half (48%) say having students from different economic backgrounds makes the learning environment better for students from poor families. Somewhat fewer (41%) say such a mix makes the learning environment better for middle-income students, and about as many see a benefit to higher-income students (42%).

As with racial/ethnic diversity, there are differences in views by ideology, political partisanship, and race/ethnicity. Family income also plays a role: About half of parents with incomes less than $100,000 call economic diversity highly important; this falls to 37% of those in the $100,000+ bracket (which comprises 22% of all parents).

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Fifty-eight percent of liberals and 48% of moderates see economic diversity as highly important, compared with 36% of conservatives. In statistical modeling controlling for other factors, ideology is the strongest predictor of this view, just as it’s the strongest predictor of seeing racial/ethnic diversity as important. Partisanship is relevant as well. 

One additional gap is notable: Hispanic parents are much less likely than others to say that having a mix of students from different economic backgrounds makes the learning environment better for students. Just 26% to 33% of Hispanic parents say economic diversity improves the learning environment for poor, middle-income, or higher-income students, compared with 42% to 51% of white parents and 52% to 56% of black parents.  

There are no differences among income groups in views on attending an economically diverse school, but other gaps emerge. One is regional: A low of 49% in the Northeast prefer an economically diverse school, compared with 58% in the South, 60% in the Midwest, and a peak of 74% in the West.

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As expected given their lack of confidence in economic diversity improving the learning environment, Hispanics (47%) are less likely than whites (63%) or blacks (65%) to prefer sending their child to an economically diverse school. And while whites and blacks don’t differ in initial preference, blacks again are more apt to accept a longer commute.

Democrats, liberals, and moderates again are more likely than Republicans and conservatives to strongly prefer that their child attend an economically diverse school. Forty-eight percent of liberals, 46% of Democrats, and 42% of moderates feel this way vs. 24% of Republicans and 25% of conservatives. (It’s 36% among independents.) And commitment again peaks among liberals; when considering the commute, two-thirds of moderates who had previously preferred diversity opt for a closer but less diverse school, compared with 44% of liberals.

The Questions

  1. Q. How important is it to you that the public schools in your community have a mix of students from different racial/ethnic backgrounds? Is this extremely important, very important, somewhat important, not so important, or not important at all?
  2. Q. How important is it to you that the public schools in your community have a mix of students from different economic backgrounds? Is this extremely important, very important, somewhat important, not so important, or not important at all?
  3. Q. Do you think having a mix of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds makes the learning environment better, worse, or the same for:
    1. White students
    2. Black and Hispanic students
  4. Q. Do you think having a mix of students from different economic backgrounds makes the learning environment better, worse, or the same for:
    1. Students from poor families
    2. Students from middle-income families
    3. Students from higher-income families
  5. Q. All else equal, would you rather have your child attend a school where most of the students are of the same race or where the student body is racially diverse? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?
  6. Q. What if your child had to commute farther than they do today to get to a more racially diverse school — would you prefer a closer but less diverse school or a farther away but more diverse school?
  7. Q. All else equal, would you rather have your child attend a school where most of the students are of the same economic background or where the student body is economically diverse?
  8. Q. What if your child had to commute farther than they do today to get to a more economically diverse school — would you prefer a closer but less diverse school or a farther away but more diverse school?
  9. Q. How diverse is your own community in terms of the racial/ethnic backgrounds of people living there? Would you say very diverse, somewhat diverse, not so diverse, or not diverse at all?
  10. Q. How diverse is your own community in terms of the economic backgrounds of people living there? Would you say very diverse, somewhat diverse, not so diverse, or not diverse at all?

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