New Research: The Century Foundation on Vouchers and School Segregation

A recent report from the Century Foundation is one of the most comprehensive sources I’ve found on the relationship between vouchers and school segregation. I have concerns about its conclusion, but overall recommend it as a useful resource in the voucher/segregation debate. Partly a literature review, its most significant contribution is in re-analyzing well-known voucher studies conducted in Louisiana and Milwaukee. It’s main argument: “voucher programs on balance are more likely to increase school segregation than to decrease it or leave it at status quo.”

The literature review portion looks at vouchers’ influence on four types of segregation: race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, and parental engagement. Turns out vouchers make things worse in each category.

On race/ethnicity there’s a glimmer of ostensibly positive news, promoted by voucher supporters- some evidence suggests that black students use vouchers to leave schools where they are overrepresented. (But, where they go matters! More about that below). Meanwhile, evidence is very clear on this: white families often use vouchers to move from integrated/mixed public schools to segregated private schools. See, for example, this great overview of Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program.

The re-analysis of existing research is where this report makes its biggest impact. It does something that is slightly different but is also quite reasonable – looks that the effect of voucher transfers both on the public schools that students have left and the private schools that they transferred to. So, the bar is set here: to improve segregation, students need to gain access to an integrated private school without exacerbating segregation on the public school side of things. Previous studies only looked at one side of it and proponents pick what makes them look best. Using data from the original studies, the Century Foundation report clarifies things:

The Louisiana Scholarship Program, a statewide program open to students at 250% of the federal poverty level who attend schools with a C or lower grade on the state rating system.

  • Original findings: 82% of voucher students left schools where their race was overrepresented, but only 55% entered private schools where their race was overrepresented. This led the authors to conclude that there was a “large, positive reduction in racial stratification” due to the voucher program.
  • Findings are misleading because:
    • Although voucher students left segregated schools, they were spread out so widely across the state that it amounted, in each case, to a few students leaving highly segregated schools, after which they were only marginally less segregated. The Century Foundation describes this as “widespread but slight reductions in racial stratification” as opposed to the broader success trumpeted in the original study.
    • The original study completely ignores the private school side of things. The re-analysis shows: 48% of all transfers landed in schools where their race was still overrepresented (so, essentially status quo) and 9% transferred from a public school where their race was underrepresented to schools where they were overrepresented (so, making segregation worse in the public and private sectors). Only 34% of transfers moved in the right direction: from public schools where their race was overrepresented to private schools where they were underrepresented.

This study also offers solid evidence of white flight into segregated private schools – 76% of white students left schools where their race was underrepresented and 72% transferred to schools that were majority white.

Things are worse when looking at the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the oldest school voucher program in the country, which provides vouchers to families earning up to 300% of the federal poverty level. It’s more straightforward here: 95% of students left schools where their race was overrepresented and amazingly 94.2% transferred to schools where their race was still overrepresented. That’s just so disappointing. Only 17.5% of students attended a private school that was between 35-85% white. Everyone else went to schools that were hypersegregated.

The report loses me at its conclusion. It makes the predictable policy recommendations: expand magnet schools, only allow vouchers in places that value diversity and that do not discriminate based on religion or sexual orientation. Of course, these things would be great, but they don’t speak to the realities we currently live in. At one point, the author states that “the federal government should increase funding for the Magnet School Assistance Program in order to create more opportunities for choice-based school integration.” That’d be awesome. But I can’t see it happening with the current administration.

I understand why these kinds of reports end this way, and I don’t fault the author for it, but I wish it could acknowledge a harsher reality: Given the evidence that we have, it seems either that voucher supporters aren’t troubled by their link to school segregation or that the very point of vouchers is to provide an out for white families (see VA’s 1950’s “massive resistance”).

If policymakers wanted to implement the recommendations here, they would have done so already at a much larger scale. Instead, the problem is that they can get away with misleading arguments. They can gain public legitimacy by claiming they’re doing something good for underserved students, while actually making things worse. They can claim that black students use vouchers to leave segregated schools, without saying anything about where they go, about the effect on schools they leave, or about troubling patterns in transfers of white students. Reports like this are great in that they offer evidence to dispel popular myths about vouchers, the same that stand in the way of policies that would actually promote school integration.

7 thoughts on “New Research: The Century Foundation on Vouchers and School Segregation

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