The widely held belief that parents invariably try to send their children to either the most academic or effective schools has been challenged by researchers at the University of Chicago.
Their study of parental choice in Minnesota suggests that the racial composition of a school is of more importance.
Steven Glazerman and Robert Meyer analysed the selections made by the families of 881 children in Minneapolis, which has had a district-wide system of state school choice since 1989.
They found that only 26 per cent of parents selected the elementary school nearest their home. More than a quarter chose schools more than two miles away, some opting for schools as far as six miles away.
An African-American family given the choice of two schools that were identical except that black students made up 25 per cent of one roll and 45 per cent of another were 1.5 times more likely to choose the school that had more black students.
The own-group preference of Hispanics was even stronger, particularly if schools offered Spanish-language programmes.
And although the figures suggested that white families were less race-conscious, Glazerman said that this may simply be because many whites had already opted for private schools or moved to the suburbs.
Glazerman believes that the research could help policy-makers predict the effects that a range of educational policies would have on migration and enrolment patterns.