One common attack on school choice is that it racially segregates America’s classrooms. In the past month alone, major questions about charter school segregation have arisen in Michigan, Indiana, and California. But do they hold water?
Before answering the question, it’s important to note what a hot-button issue school segregation is in the context of American history. After Brown v. Board of Education famously desegregated public schools, a number of Southern states passed school voucher programs as a way for white parents to defy the ruling by enrolling their children in private schools with taxpayer support.
Fortunately, that racist era of school segregation supported by the state is long gone. The modern school choice movement did not pick up speed until the 1990s, when states began experimenting with charter and voucher laws. Unlike the Jim Crow South, the modern age of choice was targeted at empowering poor minority kids, not keeping them trapped in failing public schools.
Indeed, most state school choice programs are exclusively available to students from low-income backgrounds. With that in mind, charges of charter schools and voucher programs promoting segregation in today’s age seem rather odd. How can programs aimed at providing poor kids with a better education lead them into a more segregated environment?
Many claims of school choice segregation simply do not withstand scrutiny. The education site Chalkbeat, for example, conducted a deep-dive into the numbers behind Indiana’s latest charter controversy and concluded there is no evidence of widespread segregation. To the contrary, some charter schools were much more diverse than traditional district schools.
The Obama administration faced a similar humiliation last year. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice sued to block a planned expansion of Louisiana’s school voucher program for supposedly violating federal integration standards. There was just one problem: a number of prominent studies found no evidence that the state’s vouchers were driving segregation. As a result, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals firmly rebuked Justice for its sloppy evidential claims and Louisiana’s program lives today.
It’s easy for school choice opponents to point to anecdotal evidence of segregation from state to state, but statistics speak for themselves. On the charter side, a 2014 Brookings Institution study found no evidence that charters were promoting segregation nationwide. On the voucher side, a literature review conducted by EdChoice has found that — to the contrary — most gold-standard studies conclude that vouchers promote integration.
It’s traditional public schools that are often segregated, considering that many states still heavily rely on property taxes to fund them. As a result, poor neighborhoods have badly funded schools and vice versa for rich neighborhoods. While wealthy (and often white) families have the freedom to shop around for the school district that meets their children’s needs, impoverished (and often minority) families are stuck with their failing neighborhood school. The cycle of public segregation continues.
Of course, every charter school and voucher program is different. There are likely some that have led to less diverse classrooms. But the evidence suggests that this is not a widespread problem. Where it does arise, politicians and policy analysts should be proactive in tweaking the program to encourage more integration.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. School choice has been effective at providing educational options that poor children desperately need .