Choosing Integration

The recent Supreme Court decision declaring that school vouchers do not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause was an enormous victory for supporters of school choice. But they should not savor their victory too long. Already, implacable voucher opponents at teachers unions are shifting their constitutional line of attack to the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Fortunately, the foundation for such a claim — that school vouchers would increase impermissible racial segregation — is demonstrably false. Indeed, vouchers are more likely to produce integration than are today’s public schools.

This potential new legal and political front was opened in a report released by the Harvard Civil Rights Project claiming that school choice exacerbates racial segregation. While this claim feeds a popular prejudice that private education is the bastion of wealthy white students, the evidence suggests that public schools actually tend to be more racially segregated than private schools. According to a published analysis I did of Department of Education data, 55% of public school 12th graders nationwide are in racially segregated classrooms (where more than 90% of students are of the same background) compared to 41% of private school 12th graders.

This better integration in private schools also extends to interaction between children of different races. In a study of school lunchrooms — where we can see the voluntary social interactions that reflect students’ racial attitudes — my colleagues and I found that 79% of private school students sat in a group during lunch in which at least one of the five adjacent students was of a different racial background, compared to only 43% of public school students.

Each of these studies deals with established private and public schools in areas without wide-scale voucher programs, so critics could contend that they do not represent what would ensue under vouchers. But two other studies belie this suggestion.

My analysis of the school choice program in Cleveland, as well as a similar analysis conducted by Howard Fuller and George Mitchell of the Milwaukee voucher program, conclude that those programs helped improve racial integration. In Cleveland I found that 61% of public school students in the metropolitan area attended schools that were racially segregated (where more than 90% of students were of the same background) compared to 50% of the students attending private schools with voucher students. Both systems are relatively segregated, but if a family were seeking a racially integrated experience for their child, they would have better odds of finding it in the Cleveland voucher program than they would in the public schools.

The Civil Rights Project study finds otherwise because its analysis is statistically biased. First, it examines results at the school level as opposed to the classroom or lunchroom level. Since many public schools re-segregate within the school with tracking, course assignment and magnet programs, this approach fails to see the true picture. Second, it over-represents private elementary schools. Both public and private elementary schools tend to be more segregated than high schools simply because they draw from smaller neighborhoods. Nevertheless, even with these biases, the study finds that the average African-American or Latino student attends school with the same or higher percentages of white students in private as in public school.

Why is racial integration more likely to be found in a voucher system? Unlike most public schools, attendance at private schools is not constrained by politically drawn boundaries. By denying students access to schools in neighborhoods or school districts other than those in which they live, public schools replicate and even reinforce segregated housing patterns.

Taking Cleveland as an example, it is clear that school district boundaries hinder the mostly African-American city school district and the mostly white suburban school districts from offering either group an integrated experience. The private schools in Cleveland have a better chance at offering a racially mixed experience because they can draw at least some of their students from across the political boundaries. And because the private schools more effectively reassure parents that discipline and safety will be maintained, parents are more willing to try racial mixing in private schools than they are in the area’s public schools.

This is why school choice is ultimately the best path to racial integration in schools — and why any 14th Amendment claim is doomed to failure. People will mix racially when they think it is safe and beneficial, not when the government tries to force them to do so. In fact, the more the government has to force it, the more people distrust the situation and try to avoid integration. The mounting evidence that vouchers improve educational achievement for students who switch to private schools as well as for students who choose to stay in public schools suggests that a voucher system is the best way to finally realize Brown v. Board of Education’s 50-year old promise of integrated, quality schooling for all.

Mr. Greene is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.