Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Kenneth R. Howe

Second Advisor

Margaret A. Eisenhart

Third Advisor

Nicholas Flores

Fourth Advisor

Michele S. Moses

Fifth Advisor

Kevin Welner


This dissertation presents the findings from my qualitative study of how 36 parents chose schools in a suburban district where schools have evidenced increased racial or ethnic and social class segregation through a system of open enrollment. Through interviews, focus groups, and observations of school Open House events during the 2011-2012 school year, I investigated how parents reasoned through the school choice process and how their child rearing practices related to these processes and outcomes. I then considered the insights gained about patterns of enrollment associated with race or ethnicity and socioeconomic status and the implications of these findings for public education in a democracy.

I found that individuals varied in their decision-making approaches, but broadly used heuristics to assess school quality that led them towards schools with like-minded communities and reinforced stereotypes of others unlike themselves. In addition, middle-class parents’ intensive parenting styles led to powerful relationships of partnership with teachers, access to insider information, and well-resourced social networks, all of which further drove their choice of schools toward communities of sameness. Three like-minded groups characterized my participants. First, those "Seeking the Best" sought the best opportunities for academic excellence, with diversity a low priority. Second, those "Preserving the Neighborhood" were most concerned with maintaining a strong neighborhood community that attended the same schools, and lamented a lack of diversity but did not consider it a high priority. Third, those "Defending Diverse Schools" considered diversity to be a high priority–or essential–to a high quality, well-rounded education.

Because of intricate patterns in which parents chose to send their children to schools with communities they perceived as similar to themselves and justified as the "right fit," it is clear that without further policy changes, school choice will continue to increase school segregation layered on top of residential segregation. I therefore consider the implications of segregated schools for public education in a democratic society, and conclude that in the face of current school choice policies that advance market-based solutions, policy changes must attend to the democratic aims of education that truly serve the public.