Integrating schools by expanding choice

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Last spring, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed several disturbing, interrelated trends in U.S. public education. The GAO found that racial segregation is growing in America’s public schools and that the color divide predictably tracks another, the troubling concentration of poor students in these schools.

The GAO’s findings, based on a survey of data from the 2000-2001 to 2013-2014 school years, show that schools that “had high percentages of poor and Black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent.” And these schools are “the most racially and economically concentrated” overall, with 75 to 100 percent of students being either black or Hispanic and eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, schools steadily desegregated, the plans often compelled and overseen by the courts. 

{mosads}But American public schools have seen a recrudescence of racial segregation since the ‘80s, even as other social institutions and areas of life have become more integrated. In a report for EdChoice, economist Benjamin Scafidi suggests that this increased race and class segregation may be the result of “growing programmatic homogenization” in American public schools.


As public schools across the country grow more alike, students sort by race and class rather than according to interest or school specialization, which has effectively been precluded.

A large and growing body of evidence suggests that introducing more choice and autonomy for parents would help to reverse the harmful resegregation trend of the last few decades. 

In assigning students to their schools based on their physical addresses, the government education system reinforces ethnic, social, and economic homogeneity — and thus segregation — as a matter of course. Among the most powerful and obvious arguments for school choice is that it breaks this cruel pattern, allowing parents and their children an escape from the underperforming, indeed second-class, schools to which American society has relegated poor and minority students. 

School choice options (for example, voucher programs) allow students from low-income homes, often in predominantly-minority urban communities, to attend better public schools in the suburbs or even private schools that would otherwise have been too expensive.

The relationship between race issues and the cluster of discrete policies grouped together under the term “school choice” has long been a source of controversy. Such choice-expanding policies have followed a wide range of plans, and the desegregation impact of school choice will naturally depend on the design of the particular program under consideration.

Considered as a whole, the empirical evidence on school choice programs recommends them as a potent remedy to the problem of segregation. In fact, school choice policies are doubly beneficial, providing students in the worst schools better alternatives and furthering integration in some of the most racially segregated areas of the country.

Indeed, as a two-part installment of NPR’s This American Life titled “The Problem We All Live With” illuminated, some critics of school choice oppose is precisely because it integrates schools; the series highlighted a Missouri town hall meeting in which several parents express their disapproval of a school choice policy that allowed students from a mostly-black neighboring district with failing schools to opt for a different school. It’s easy to explain how school choice policies promote school desegregation; they break the connection between location on a map and assigned school, a connection that has systematically disadvantaged students of color. 

As reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones observed on This American Life, “In most of the thousands of poor, segregated schools in America, that would be it. Your zip code is the anchor that traps you.” 

School choice stands to benefit these poor, minority students far more than advantaged students, those from more affluent communities whose parents already have choices and whose public schools tend to meet or exceed standards. 

In 2013, education scholar Greg Forster surveyed the findings of eight studies on the racial integration effects of school choice — specifically, means-tested voucher programs — in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Washington, DC. 

In seven of the eight, voucher programs that allowed parents to send their children to private schools were shown to increase racial integration. These findings stand to reason. Because public school segregation tends to coincide with geographical segregation, private schools — unbound to a fixed locale — tend to be more integrated.

All of this is to say nothing of the myriad other benefits of school choice. As mechanisms for achieving accountability and strong student performance, choice and competition have been proven themselves more effective than either further centralizing testing and curriculum standards or throwing more money at the problem. Human capital and institutional culture are far more important to successful K-12 education than is the number of dollars spent per student. And as in any other human enterprise, accountability requires choice, options from which an individual may freely choose.

Comparisons, to be relevant and actionable from a policy perspective, must be made between the known facts about school choice and the public education status quo as it actually exists and has existed. It is idle to compare school choice to a counterfactual version of government-monopoly education in which segregation has not steadily increased for more than thirty years.

At the very least, expanding the range of options available to underprivileged parents and their children, minorities in particular, compares quite favorably to the broken status quo. Choice and competition are inherently disruptive to the status quo, and no one is entitled to the continuation of the way things are, whether it’s the school administrators and union bosses invested in it or the Missouri parent who believes she’s entitled to a segregated school.

David D’Amato, an adjunct law professor at DePaul University, is a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags achievement gap integration School choice

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