Sociology Educational Policy and Race
Mahala Dyer Stewart
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 May 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 May 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0248


Policies are crucial for understanding the way that racial inequalities persist within contemporary society. Educational policies include those official and unofficial guidelines that are developed by policymakers, school administrators, and educators to influence the way that schools both directly and indirectly provide education to students. In the United States, these policies include a variety of state and federal laws and regulations that govern students’ pre-kindergarten, primary (K–8), and secondary schooling (high school), as well as policies affecting higher education (college and beyond). Scholars studying education show that examining how policies are created—who creates it and for what purpose—and also how the policy is put into practice at the state and district level is crucial for understanding inequalities. This entry focuses on K–12 educational policy and race in the United States. More specifically, the focus is primarily on influential policies in schools since the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, with particular attention on two crucial types of race-based educational policy: desegregation and school choice programs. There are many other educational policies not addressed here that could be examined for their influence in racial schooling inequities. This piece focuses on K–12 educational policies, but policies related to race in pre-K as well as institutions of higher education are also areas in which educational policies are impacted by race relations. Examining those formal and informal guidelines for the way that they shape children’s schooling is crucial for understanding how racial inequalities persist within contemporary society. As a practice of power, education policy has the potential to be used as a tool for positive social change and disrupt white supremacy within the context of schooling. Yet doing so requires first recognizing the way that race and racism have been written into school policies.

General Overview

Much research focusing on contemporary K–12 educational policies in the United States shows how policies have resulted in maintaining racial inequalities in schools, as discussed in Whitty 2002. Especially since the 1980s there has been a push within the United States to situate schools within a “quasi-market place” due to the increasing influence of neoliberal ideals, as captured in Lipman 2003. Scholars have documented how this has led schools to become more focused on accountability, standardization, and central control that link parental choice to competition between schools. This is commonly referred to as school choice, a set of policies and rhetoric around which parents choose the best schooling option for their child, as defined in Berends 2015. These school reforms are examined through transnational comparison in Whitty, et al. 1998. These educational policies have emphasized that efficiency, responsiveness, and effectiveness will result when schools compete for their students. Yet social scientists have consistently reported market-based education policies—including school choice—have proved to maintain if not exacerbate existing racial inequalities such that students of color, particularly black, Latino, and American Indian students are segregated into poorly resourced schools—deteriorating buildings, along with overcrowded classrooms that lack textbooks and other school supplies—while white and Asian students are disproportionately concentrated in schools with superior resources, as studied in Picower and Mayorga 2015. To better understand how school choice and desegregation policies perpetuate racial inequality, this article traces the history of key legislation that has impacted racial disparities in K–12 US schooling since Brown.

  • Berends, Mark. 2015. Sociology and school choice: What we know after two decades of charter schools. The Annual Review of Sociology 41.15: 1–15.

    This review examines the changes in the educational landscape since the 1990s to gauge the impact of the growing number of charter schools. The author argues that charters have led to mixed results for student achievement, while increasing high school graduation and college attendance measures and calling for additional research to draw comparisons between traditional public and charter schools.

  • Lipman, Pauline. 2003. High stakes education: Inequality, globalization, and urban school reform. New York: Routledge.

    Examines the impact of shifts in global-, national-, and local-level political-economic structures for their impact on urban schools. Through participant observation and interview data collected within four Chicago public schools, Lipman documents the way that centralized control, accountability, and standardization in school policies surface in ways that maintain and perpetuate race and class disparities in schools.

  • Picower, Bree, and Edwin Mayorga. 2015. What’s race got to do with it? How current school reform policy maintains racial and economic inequality. New York: Peter Lang.

    DOI: 10.3726/978-1-4539-1476-2

    This collection focus on the role that race places in current educational policies from school closings, high-stakes testing, to the growth of charter schools. Each piece highlights different ways that racialization operates through education policy, while drawing on a frame that examines the political-economic climate that is embedded with institutional, cultural, and individual levels of racism. The pieces in this anthology examine how school choice policies implemented differently across states have primarily benefited white students, while providing fewer resources to students of color, especially black and Latino students.

  • Whitty, Geoff. 2002. Making sense of education policy. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

    This text examines recent trends in education policies that have relied on parental choice and competition between schools situated in a marketplace. This anthology examines the impact of educational policies on race and class disparities. Each study focuses on a different aspect of these recent policy shifts by looking at different cases around the world including those in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States.

  • Whitty, Geoff, Sally Power, and David Halpin. 1998. Devolution and choice in education: The school, the state and the market. Bristol, PA: Open Univ. Press.

    As a way to assess recent school reforms transnationally, the authors examine changes in England, Wales, United States, Australia, and New Zealand. These shifts include comparing across countries the decentralized decision making in public schools and the impact of these changes on the classroom and curricula. The authors conclude by considering the ways these changes seem to reinforce social class and racial hierarchies.

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