Research & Commentary: Contrary to Union Rhetoric, School Voucher Programs Help to Integrate Schools

Published July 31, 2017

A report released in July 2017 by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive think tank, titled The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers, claims the programs originated in the “massive resistance” of Southern states to school integration.

The authors use the example of Prince Edward County in Virginia to cast the entire history of school vouchers as “sordid.” In response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board (1954) to end segregation in public schools, Prince Edward County shut down all its public schools and gave white families vouchers for use at all-white private schools. Ultimately, there were roughly 100,000 students taking part of these vouchers in Dixie by the dawn of the 1970s.

CAP’s release party for the paper was co-sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, the heavy-spending union with a vested financial interest in opposing voucher programs to protect the monopoly position of the government-run schools that employ its members, and AFT President Randi Weingarten, alluding to the report, called vouchers the “polite cousin of segregation” in a speech at AFT’s national conference that same week.

Of course, what happened in Prince Edward County and elsewhere in the South at the tail end of Jim Crow is part of the voucher story and deserving of reprobation, but it is not the origin of the voucher story, and it is certainly not the whole of the voucher story.

As Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out in a piece for National Review Online the call for school vouchers can be traced back to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man in 1791–92, with an assist from John Stuart Mill in 1859’s On Liberty. “[Government] might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them,” Mill wrote.

However, the modern voucher ur-text was Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman’s 1955 essay “The Role of Government in Education,”  although an example of a voucher program was already on the books in the form of the GI Bill by the time Friedman’s essay was published. Pell Grants, another voucher, would follow a decade after Friedman’s essay. The first modern voucher program, established in Milwaukee in 1990, was championed by black Democrats like state Senator Polly Williams, and polling of black voters routinely puts support for vouchers and other forms of school choice in the majority.  

In practice, voucher programs have been a vehicle for integration. According to EdChoice, since 1999, there have been 10 studies “using valid empirical methods” looking into how vouchers have affected school segregation in Cleveland, Milwaukee, the District of Columbia, and Louisiana. Of these, not a single empirical study shows voucher programs led to increased segregation. Nine out of the 10 studies found the voucher programs actually moved students into schools that were more integrated, while the other showed the voucher was having no net effect.

“Public schools are intractably segregated by race, mostly because students are assigned to schools based on where they live,” EdChoice wrote. “School choice has the potential to break down those residential barriers.” Long-term research also shows minority students in voucher programs are 35 percent more likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree than their public school peers.

Because of their popularity with parents, voucher programs have seen consistent growth since 1990, and there are now 26 separate voucher programs in operation in 15 states and the District of Columbia, giving over 178,000 students access to the school that best suits their unique needs and helping to integrate schools.

The following documents provide more information on vouchers and education choice.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

2016/17 School Choice Report Card
This report card published by the American Federation for Children scores 27 active non-special-needs voucher, scholarship tax-credit, and education savings account programs against ideal standards for program quality. The report is an excellent tool policymakers and researchers can use to help improve education programs and maximize student participation. 

Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived
In this new Heartland Policy Brief, Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal ESA programs offer the most comprehensive range of educational choices to parents; describes the six ESA programs currently in operation; and reviews possible state-level constitutional challenges to ESA programs.

Research & Commentary: Indiana School Choice Parental Satisfaction Should Lead to More School Choice–commentary-indiana-school-choice-parental-satisfaction-should-lead-to-more-school-choice?source=policybot
In this Research & Commentary, Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson examines an expanded, follow-up study to a 2014 report by EdChoice that examines why Indiana parents choose to take advantage of the state’s Choice Scholarship Program voucher and use it to send their children to private schools.

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.

How Has the Louisiana Scholarship Program Affected Students? A Comprehensive Summary of Effects after Three Years
This Policy Brief from the School Choice Demonstration at the University of Arkansas summarizes the findings of three of its prior technical reports on the Louisiana Scholarship Program.

Making Sense of New Evidence on Private School Vouchers
This Urban Institute panel discusses the latest results from the Louisiana Scholarship Program and what those results mean for the future of private school vouchers around the country. Panelists include Matthew Chingos, director of the Education Policy Program at the Urban Institute; Douglas Harris, director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans; John White, Louisiana state superintendent of education; Patrick Wolf, professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas; and Beth Blaufuss, president of Archbishop Carroll High School in New Orleans.

The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts
In the first-ever study of public school districts’ fixed costs in every state and Washington, DC, Benjamin Scafidi concludes approximately 36 percent of school district spending cannot be quickly reduced when students leave. The remaining 64 percent, or approximately $8,000 per student on average, are variable costs, changing directly with student enrollment. This means a school choice program attaching less than $8,000 to each child who leaves a public school for a private school actually leaves the district with more money to spend on each remaining child. In the long run, Scafidi notes, all local district spending is variable, meaning all funds could be attached to individual children over time without creating fiscal problems for government schools.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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