Panel Paper: Understanding the Impact of Socioeconomic-Based Student-Assignment Policies: Evidence from Wake County, North Carolina

Thursday, November 8, 2018
Marriott Balcony B - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Rodney Hughes, West Virginia University, Darryl V. Hill, Fulton County Schools, Matthew A. Lenard, Wake County Public School System, David Liebowitz, University of Oregon and Lindsay C. Page, University of Pittsburgh

Since the 1976 merger of the Raleigh City Schools and the Wake County Schools in North Carolina, the Wake County Public School System has maintained a commitment to diversity. For much of the history of the district’s student assignment policy, leadership ensured diversity in schools by informing school assignment with students’ race, such that individual schools’ compositions reflected that of the district. Beginning in 2000-01, student socioeconomic status (SES) rather than race informed school assignment, with students’ eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) as a proxy for SES. In addition, the district sought to ensure that no school served an overwhelming concentration of students scoring below grade level on the state’s reading assessment. Consequently, the district aimed for a distribution of students such that no school served a student body made up of more than 40 percent FRPL students and 25 percent students reading below grade level. This policy guided student assignment for the next ten years. We investigate outcomes associated with the SES-based student assignment policy over this period.

Under the assignment plan, socioeconomic integration targets were achieved by reassigning all students who lived in the same “node” (a geographic area, housing development, etc.) as a group to a school with a different socioeconomic composition from the composition of their node. The decision about which nodes to reassign was reached with information on the distance to the nearest socioeconomically different schools (with capacity), with community and school board feedback. Nevertheless, students in reassigned nodes were essentially indistinguishable from students living across the street who were not reassigned.

We exploit this differential treatment of students to isolate the causal impact of the assignment policy on elementary and middle school student outcomes. We compare the academic and behavioral outcomes of students assigned to move to a different school with students similar in all other ways except that they were not reassigned. We employ empirical matching strategies to match students residing in reassigned nodes to observationally similar students from non-reassigned nodes who attend the same original school. We then use regression analysis to compare relevant outcomes between reassigned students and their non-reassigned matched counterparts. We find that school reassignment has little systematic impact on students’ academic outcomes. However, for middle school students, the policy leads to an increase in school absences. Reassigned students miss an average of a half-day more of school, and this impact is particularly concentrated among low-income students, who miss nearly two additional days of school after reassignment.

Contrary to prior writing on this policy, we find that rates of compliance with reassignment were relatively low. Specifically, in the years we examine, only about 55 percent of students targeted for reassignment actually switched to the newly designated school. Students who complied with reassignment were less likely to be white, more likely to be low income, and had lower prior test scores than targeted students who did not comply. Among these compliers, low-income students missed nearly three more days of school after reassignment, with no consistent impacts on achievement.