Seeing Merit as a Vehicle for Opportunity and Equity: Youth Respond to School Choice Policy

Kate Phillippo*, Briellen Griffin, B. Jacob Del Dotto, Crystal Lennix, Ha Tran

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


School choice policy is ubiquitous in urban school districts. Evidence suggests that it has not fully delivered on its proponents’ promises of equitable educational opportunity. While scholars and policymakers scrutinize data to determine school choice’s equity outcomes, little attention has been paid to how school choice policy directly influences youth understanding of educational equity and opportunity. This study therefore explores how youth who engage with school choice policy come to understand and act upon the distribution of educational opportunities, and the extent to which their understandings and actions vary by social identity, family resources, school resources and admissions outcomes. 36 youth, engaged in the high school choice process, participated in this study, which is guided by policy enactment theory. Across subgroups, participants overwhelmingly valued merit as the best principle by which to distribute educational opportunity. Alongside this near-universal embrace of merit and widespread participation in choice policy-required actions, those who accessed the highest-performing schools often did so by activating non-academic resources that required financial capital. These findings highlight a shared ritual that serves to instantiate and reinforce ideals of meritocracy. Findings inform our discussion of school choice policy’s educational equity and civic implications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)591-616
Number of pages26
JournalUrban Review
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2021


  • Educational opportunity
  • Equity
  • Merit
  • Meritocracy
  • Policy enactment theory
  • School choice policy
  • Urban education policy
  • Urban youth

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Urban Studies


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