Voucher Programs Better Integrated than Public Schools, New Report Finds

Published November 1, 2006

School voucher programs in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Washington, DC are moving students into private schools that are more racially integrated than the local public schools, according to a report from the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation released October 3.

The report examines seven empirical studies that have compared segregation levels in public schools and in private schools that participated in voucher programs over the past seven years.

“The fact that all of the scientifically valid studies reach the same conclusion is very striking,” said Greg Forster, the report’s author and a Friedman Foundation senior fellow. “When we’re dealing with controversial questions, it’s rare for all the empirical research to be pointing in one direction.”

The seven studies were chosen because they use scientifically valid methods, Forster said. Other studies compare dissimilar grade levels or fail to use standardized definitions of segregation.

Refuting Criticisms

Critics of school choice programs often contend vouchers will increase segregation. A similar objection is that private schools are more racially segregated than their public counterparts. The latter claim is also refuted by the Friedman report: A review of three studies shows no substantial difference between segregation levels in public and private schools.

One of those studies, conducted by Jay Greene in 1998 for The Brookings Institution, found public school classrooms are more likely than private school classrooms to be racially homogenous.

“These findings can help provide an entrée for liberal education reformers to support school choice,” said Clint Bolick, president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice, a Phoenix-based advocacy group.

Bolick pointed to an article published in the November 2005 issue of the Fordham Law Review, in which civil rights supporter and law professor William L. Taylor endorsed selective school choice as a means of reducing racial segregation.

Recognizing Limitations

The Friedman Foundation report observes public schools are limited by geographic boundaries, which tend to homogenize student populations. And while private schools tend to draw from larger geographic areas than public schools, financial barriers can keep families from enrolling their students.

“School vouchers empower parents to enter the private school market, breaking down the monetary barrier and making it easier for them to seek schooling across geographic boundaries,” Forster states in the report. “This would result in a greater mixing of students of different races.”

Bolick said he’s not surprised by the report’s conclusions.

“It confirms what we’ve already seen,” Bolick said. “These findings tend to surprise people, but that’s only because most people don’t understand how stratified inner-city public schools are.”

Following Up

Because the studies reviewed by the Friedman Foundation examined data taken from single points in time, the results do not suggest vouchers directly reduce segregation levels. However, said Forster, they do show that today’s students who use vouchers attend less racially segregated schools.

“Once you have the data, the question becomes ‘Why is that?'” Forster said. “The plausible answer is that private schools break down neighborhood boundaries by drawing students together across a wider geographic area, and that, in turn, will reduce segregation.”

Hilary Masell Oswald ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Evanston, Illinois.

For more information …

“Freedom from Racial Barriers: The Empirical Evidence on Vouchers and Segregation,” by Greg Forster, published by the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation on October 3, 2006, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for document #19825.