Integration Where It Counts: A Study of Racial Integration in Public And Private School Lunchrooms by Jay P. Greene and Nicole Mellow presented at the Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, September, 1998.  Using a measure called the Index of Integration (IOI) the authors’ “analyses suggest that private schools tend to offer a more racially integrated environment than do public schools” and “show that private school students are more likely to have a positive, integrated school experience than public school students.”  It is roughly 30 pages and while it can be a bit “wonky” it is still easily understood.  To get a proper understanding of the methodology and reasoning this is best read in full.  However, we have pasted a few highlights below.  The paper is available to read in full Here.

Since Horace Mann’s description of the “common school,” one of the stated goals of American education has been to bring students of different backgrounds together in schools. The belief that government-operated schools would mix students better than private schools was one of the primary justifications for the development and growth of a universal system of public schools.

The belief that public schools produce better integration than private schools is deeply held by many people, but it is unfortunately supported by little empirical evidence. In this paper we take a systematic look at integration in a random sample of public and private schools in two cities. Unlike previous studies of integration in schools, our data are drawn from a setting in which racial mixing has greater meaning: the lunchroom.

Our analyses suggest that private schools tend to offer a more racially integrated environment than do public schools. The primary explanation for private schools’ success at integration is that private school attendance is not as closely attached to where one lives as attendance at public schools. Public schools tend to replicate and reinforce racial segregation in housing. Because private schools do not require that their students live in particular neighborhoods, they can more easily overcome segregation in housing to provide integration in school. The strong religious mission and higher social class found in most private schools are also factors that contribute to better racial integration.

If we want to know how well schools achieve the ideals of the common school we should have a measure of integration that more closely captures that output.

In this study we employ a new measure of integration, which we call the Index of Integration (IOI), that we believe better captures the extent of positive socialization resulting from racial integration. Quite simply, we observed school lunchrooms and recorded where students sat by race. We then calculated the percentage of students who had a student of a different racial group sitting next to them. From this, the percentage of students who have an integrated lunchroom setting can be calculated for an entire school system.

Our goal, however, is to determine whether students ultimately have a positive, heterogeneous racial experience.  Do students have the experience of mixing with students of different backgrounds in a positive way?

The Index of Integration also allows for more meaningful comparisons between school systems.  To say that one school system is better integrated than another because it evenly distributes its racially homogenous population has little relationship to whether that school system actually offers a better integration experience. The IOI tells us whether students in public or private school systems in the same area are more likely to sit in racially heterogeneous groups; that tells us the system in which students are more likely to experience positive integration.

Lastly, the IOI has the advantage of more closely measuring the outcome of integration as opposed to the inputs. Schools are producing successful integration when students of different racial backgrounds are comfortable enough to sit next to each other in the informal setting of the lunchroom. Students of different backgrounds may be in the same school buildings but become re-segregated through tracking (Oakes 1985). Students of different backgrounds may even share the same classrooms, but fail to get to know each other, learn about each other, or gain mutual respect and understanding (Gadsden, Smith, and Jordan 1996, Grant 1990). But the lunchroom is where the race-relations “rubber meets the road.” We can have greater confidence that students are having a positive integrated experience if they choose to sit near each other in the lunchroom.

Of all students observed in private school lunchrooms, 63.5% were in an integrated setting. That is, 63.5% of private school students were sitting in a group where at least one of the five students immediately around them was of a different racial group. In public schools, 49.7% of all students were in a similarly integrated lunchroom setting. This difference is both substantively and statistically significant. Private school students are more likely to be sitting in racially heterogeneous groups than are public school students.

Controlling for all of these factors (city, seating restrictions, school size, and student grade level) in a logistic regression yields an adjusted integration result for public and private school students …78.9% of private school students are in a racially heterogeneous lunchroom setting compared to 42.5% of public school students.

These results clearly show that private school students are more likely to have a positive, integrated school experience than public school students. In the following sections we will consider possible explanations for this fact, but they do not alter the fact itself. Regardless of why private schools may better produce integration, the fact that they do is contrary to widely help assumptions about race and private schooling and is therefore an important finding.

Possible Explanation: Income and Social Class

Students in private schools may mix more easily with students of other races because they may have a greater tendency to come from families with higher incomes and social class.

Possible Explanation: Mission

Perhaps many private schools produce better results because their religious mission is conducive to integration. It is also possible that a private school’s adherence to a religious or other strongly held mission may help the parents of that school’s students overcome anxieties about integration.

Possible Explanation: Segregation in Housing

Private schools may be better integrated than public schools because they depend less on racially segregated housing patterns for selecting their student body. Public schools tend to replicate and reinforce racial segregation in housing. Because public schools overwhelmingly select their student population based on where students live, these schools reproduce the racial segregation evident in housing. Private schools, on the other hand, are only constrained in the geographic location from which they can draw students by the practical limits of transportation difficulties.  By detaching schooling from housing, private schools may greatly reduce the anxiety that parents feel about the consequences of an effort at integration that goes badly


While not definitive, the evidence presented here should help redefine how we think about integration in public and private schools. We should no longer accept unquestioningly the widely held view that public schools are better at integration than private schools. We should seriously consider policy proposals that would detach schooling from housing. This could include magnet schools and other public school choice programs as well as school choice programs that include private schools. If we include private schools in choice programs we should seriously consider including religious schools among the available options because the religious mission of those schools may further advance racial integration in schools. In short, if we are serious about the benefits of racially heterogeneous school experiences, we need to consider abandoning or modifying the long held view that the traditional public schools is equivalent to the ideal of the common school.

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