Vouchers Could Desegregate Schools Better Than Buses

Published July 16, 2007

On June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down two public-school integration programs–one in Louisville, the other in Seattle–on the basis that they discriminate according to race. The decision has been called “radical” by Democratic presidential nominees and attacked by reporters and editors alike. “Bye-bye Brown” remarked one professor, referring to the seminal desegregation case that found separate was not equal.

Many American public schools historically have been and still are racially segregated, with racial concentrations often higher than 90 percent. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, federal courts have distinguished de facto segregation attributable to housing patterns from de jure segregation attributable to unconstitutional government acts, usually by state and local public school boards and staff.

Many states and hundreds of northern, southern, and western public school districts, particularly in large cities, remain under federal court supervision as adjudicated constitutional violators.

But does this recent decision really let these districts off the hook? Does it mark the return of segregated schools to America? Certainly not. It only means these school districts must look for ways to integrate classrooms other than forcibly assigning children to schools based on their skin color. One promising way to do this is with education vouchers.

Education vouchers are grants to parents covering some or all of the cost of private school tuition. Vouchers make it far easier for poor and black families to send their children to private schools, if they so choose.

Jay Greene and Marcus Winters’s evaluation of the first year of the Washington, D.C., voucher program showed that voucher students, 94 percent of whom are black, attended private schools that are more racially integrated than the District’s public schools. The evaluators point out that neither public nor participating private schools in Washington, D.C., are racially integrated in proportion to the city’s population, but the voucher program did help create more opportunities for integration than would have otherwise existed.

Research on Cleveland’s voucher program similarly indicates greater racial integration of voucher users. The Cleveland Scholarship Program began in the 1996–97 school year and provides up to $2,250 per student to attend one of 51 private schools. Greene found that nearly one-fifth (19 percent) of voucher students attended a racially integrated school, compared with only 5.2 percent of Cleveland public school students. Greene’s research also showed “61 percent of public school students in the metropolitan area attended schools that were racially segregated (where more than 90 percent of students were of the same background) compared to 50 percent of the students attending private schools with voucher students.”

Religious schools were initially ineligible to participate in Milwaukee’s voucher program. That prohibition was subsequently lifted, and an evaluation of the program showed that Milwaukee’s voucher-accepting religious schools are now better integrated than the city’s public schools. In 1990–91, 341 students used vouchers to attend seven schools, and by 2001–02, 10,882 students used vouchers to attend 106 different schools. While 54.4 percent of Milwaukee public school students attended racially isolated schools in 2001–02, only 41.8 percent attended similarly racially isolated private religious schools in the voucher program. The program allowed some students who would otherwise have been racially isolated to attend less-segregated private religious schools.

In late 2006, Gregg Forster reviewed seven valid research studies of voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., and concluded that each one showed that voucher-participating private schools were less racially segregated than public schools.

Claims that vouchers would disadvantage poor and minority children, or children with special educational needs, or lead to greater segregation, are unsupported by the research on existing voucher programs. All the research instead points to the overwhelmingly positive effects.

Voucher parents choose schools mainly for academic reasons, and are generally much more satisfied with their schools’ services than are public-school parents. Parents also report that voucher schools provide safer, more secure environments for their children.

Since the Supreme Court is forcing cities to rethink how they deal with segregated schools, this would be a great time to incorporate vouchers into their solution.

Herbert J. Walberg ([email protected]) is a fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and chairman of The Heartland Institute’s board. He is author of School Choice: The Findings (Cato Institute, August 2007).