WILL Blog | Flanders: On vouchers and racial integration

A recent study by the Southeastern Education Foundation (SEF) has made waves by claiming that private schools in the United States today represent a throwback to the segregation of Jim Crow America.   The authors claim that private schools have provided white parents with a refuge against racial integration, and point to the disproportionate whiteness of private schools in America as evidence.  In the southern states that are the main focus of their research, SEF claims that minority parents understand that private schools are “not schools that are open to them.”

Whatever the situation in these states examined by SEF, it should first be noted that the findings of this paper run counter to the prevailing wisdom about the impact of vouchers on education. By providing poor parents—who are disproportionately minorities—with opportunities to send their children to schools they would not otherwise have the chance to attend, much of the existing research has found a positive effect on racial integration.   For example, Greene and Winters (2006) examined the parental choice program in Washington D.C. While they did not find tremendous differences, they concluded that the D.C. voucher program schools were somewhat less segregated than regular D.C. public schools.  In Milwaukee, scholars have found either neutral or positive[1] impacts on integration.

SEF’s generally negative tone has masked a shining example of where voucher program have been successful in integrating schools: right here in Wisconsin.  Its researchers examined all private schools in a state rather than focusing on those that accept voucher students. The fact that meaningful differences show up in Wisconsin despite this design flaw makes the result all the more staggering.  It means that school choice in Wisconsin has literally changed the face of private school education.

SEF finds that 14.0% of all private school students in Wisconsin are African American compared with only 9.8% of students statewide.  At the state level, African Americans attend private schools with vouchers at a disproportionately high rate, suggesting that Wisconsin private schools are more integrated than would be expected based on population.  According to the authors, Wisconsin has the highest rate of African American attendance of private schools relative to population of any state in the country.

Figure 1. Percent Minority, Private Schools vs. School-Age Population, Wisconsin.

2016-4-22 blog graph  Source: Race and Ethnicity in a New Era of Public Funding of Private Schools. Southern Education Foundation

A few caveats on this finding certainly need to be stated.  The long-term existence of the voucher program in the heavily-African American Milwaukee Public Schools juxtaposed against the relative infancy of the statewide voucher program may partially explain this result.  That said, it is clear from this research that African Americans in Wisconsin need not feel that private schools represent a closed door, but rather a wide open path to safer schools and higher academic achievement.

[1] Fuller, H., & Greiveldinger, D. (2002). The impact of school choice on racial integration in Milwaukee private schools. American Education Reform Council


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