The Efficiency of Race-Neutral Alternatives to Race-Based Affirmative Action: Evidence from Chicago’s Exam Schools

New Findings, School Assignment, School Reform, September 2016

Several pub­lic K-12 and uni­ver­si­ty sys­tems have recent­ly shift­ed from race-based affir­ma­tive action plans to race-neu­tral alter­na­tives. This paper explores the degree to which race-neu­tral alter­na­tives are effec­tive sub­sti­tutes for racial quo­tas using data from the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), where a race-neu­tral, place-based affir­ma­tive action sys­tem is used for admis­sions at high­ly com­pet­i­tive exam high schools. We devel­op a the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work that moti­vates quan­ti­fy­ing the effi­cien­cy cost of race-neu­tral poli­cies by the extent admis­sions deci­sions are dis­tort­ed more than need­ed to achieve a giv­en lev­el of diver­si­ty. According to our met­ric, CPS’s race-neu­tral sys­tem is 24% and 20% effi­cient as a tool for increas­ing minor­i­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tion at the top two exam schools, i.e. about three-fourths of the reduc­tion in com­pos­ite scores could have been avoid­ed by explic­it­ly con­sid­er­ing race. Even though CPS’s sys­tem is based on socioe­co­nom­ic dis­ad­van­tage, it is actu­al­ly less effec­tive than racial quo­tas at increas­ing the num­ber of low-income stu­dents. We exam­ine sev­er­al alter­na­tive race-neu­tral poli­cies and find some to be more effi­cient than the CPS pol­i­cy. What is fea­si­ble varies with the school’s sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hood char­ac­ter­is­tics and the tar­get­ed lev­el of minor­i­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tion. However, no race-neu­tral pol­i­cy restores minor­i­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tion to pri­or lev­els with­out sub­stan­tial inef­fi­cien­cy, imply­ing sig­nif­i­cant effi­cien­cy costs from pro­hi­bi­tions on affir­ma­tive action poli­cies that explic­it­ly con­sid­er race.