|Expanding access to private schools is likely to ameliorate segregation in U.S. education, not lead to race wars, ethnic cleansing, or genocide.|
Some people oppose school choice because they fear that it will foster racial segregation, cultural divisiveness, and social fragmentation. Concern for these social outcomes of education is sensible despite the greater attention that test scores often receive. After all, the ideal of the common school, where students learn respect for their fellow citizens by mixing with students of different backgrounds, was and continues to be central to the justification of the public funding of education.
Private schools are often seen as antithetical to this ideal of the common school, as havens for homogeneous groups of students. Expanding access to private schools through vouchers or other forms of publicly sponsored school choice, critics argue, would only exacerbate the problem of segregation created by private schools. David Berliner, a former president of the American Educational Research Association, warned that “voucher programs would allow for splintering along ethnic and racial lines.” “Our primary concern,” he said, “is that voucher programs could end up resembling the ethnic cleansing now occurring in Kosovo.” The Harrisburg, Pa., superintendent of schools was even more alarmist when he told a television audience that school choice would help create “Hitlerian regimes.”
Yet the facts suggest that private schools are nothing like the places depicted by such critics. Far from being segregationist enclaves, private schools, on average, are better integrated by race than are public schools. Expanding access to private schools is likely to ameliorate segregation in U.S. education, not lead to race wars, ethnic cleansing, or genocide.
Public schools are hampered in their ability to reduce segregation by the fact that most of their students are assigned to schools based on where they live. Public schools tend to reproduce and reinforce racial segregation in housing. Private schools, on the other hand, can and typically do draw students from across political and neighborhood boundaries to gather a more racially mixed student body. While it is true that public school systems have a higher proportion of minority students than do private schools, the distribution of minorities within the public and private sectors clearly shows that, by detaching schooling from residences, individual private schools are more likely to be integrated schools.
According to a national sample of public and private school 12th graders collected by the U.S. Department of Education, public school classrooms are more apt to be almost entirely white or almost entirely minority. More than half of all public school 12th graders (55 percent) are in classes that have more than 90 percent or fewer than 10 percent minority students. In private schools, just 41 percent of students are in similarly segregated classrooms. And private school students are markedly more likely to be in classes that come close to resembling the nation’s demographics. More than a third (37 percent) of private school students are in classes whose racial composition is within 10 percent of the national average. Just 18 percent of public school students are in classes that are similarly mixed.
Survey responses suggest that better integration in private schools also leads to better race relations there. Students were asked whether pupils at their school made friends with youngsters of other races. Thirty-one percent of private school students strongly agreed that this was the case at their school, compared with only 18 percent of public school students. Public school students, teachers, and administrators were also as much as twice as likely as their private school counterparts to report that racial conflict and fighting were problems at their schools.
A study of seating patterns at lunchroom tables confirms these survey findings that integration in private school classrooms leads to greater cross-racial friendship.
Private schools’ students are almost twice as likely to sit in racially mixed groups in the lunchroom as are public school students.
Private schools’ students are almost twice as likely to sit in racially mixed groups in the lunchroom as are public school students. The evidence, in short, indicates that private schools not only produce more racial mixing but also greater racial tolerance and harmony.
That’s today. What would happen tomorrow if choice expanded the number of private school students?
Early evidence from the school choice program in Cleveland suggests that choice does help promote integration. In the Cleveland metropolitan area, more than three- fifths of public school students attend schools that are nearly all white or all minority. Yet among students who choose to attend private schools with a voucher, only half are in similarly segregated schools. A more dramatic difference: Almost a fifth (19 percent) of school choice private school students are in classes whose racial composition is within 10 percent of the average minority percentage in the Cleveland metropolitan area. Just 5 percent of public school students are in classes that are similarly mixed. In Cleveland, students are using vouchers to move from racially segregated public schools to better-integrated private schools.
Some people have trouble accepting the fact that school choice would promote racial integration because they remember how private schools were used in the South to evade the requirements of Brown v. Board of Education.
It is true that school choice is tainted with this shameful history. But public schools are also tainted by the fact that in much of the land they were segregated by law for almost a century. And following Brown, suburban public schools were used to evade efforts at integration far more often than were private schools.
Rather than judge contemporary policies by their pedigrees, we should judge them by their merits and their actual effects. The evidence is clear that private schools are able to offer better racial integration because they are able to transcend the segregation in housing. School choice offers the potential of expanding this integration by allowing people to associate in schools without regard to where they live or how much money they have.
Jay P. Greene is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York City.
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Why School Choice Can Promote Integration