Reporter's Notebook

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Conflicting Views on the Effects of School Choice on Integration

As policymakers continue to push for programs that allow parents to pick their children's schools, researchers gathered here last week warned that free-form educational choice could lead to greater racial isolation of students.

"It's not clear to me what are the conditions that would bring about greater racial integration; it is clear to me what will not," Rosalyn Mickelson, a sociology professor at University of North Carolina in Charlotte, said during a May 22 conference on choice and racial diversity hosted by the National Center for the Study of Privatization at Teachers College, Columbia University.

"A sloppy or half-baked choice plan" will lead to racial segregation in schools and school systems, Ms. Mickelson argued. "Racial integration is not always possible, but when it is possible I think we need to defend it and cherish it."

With the era of court-ordered desegregation and mandatory busing giving way to the rise of alternatives like magnet schools, charter schools, and privately funded tuition-voucher programs, there is a growing debate about whether these new arrangements are leading to racial isolation.

With few exceptions, most of the attendees at last week's conference voiced doubts that racial equality in the nation's schools could be maintained under choice plans that don't include measures specifically aimed at that goal.

One study examined whether charter schools were the result of "an emerging market for a new model of equity." In it, researchers Carol Ascher and Nathalis Wamba of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University contend that even if charter schools offer an alternative to the one-size-fits-all approach of regular public schools, they don't necessarily offer an "education that carefully helps individual children blossom and thrive."

Furthermore, Ms. Ascher said, "there is beginning evidence nationally that charter schools may be furthering economic and racial isolation."

Others, however, questioned whether racial balance should take priority over the belief of some parents that charter schools and other alternatives can provide a better education than the traditional public school system.

"The demographics of charter schools need to be monitored and the outright or even subtle forms of inequity need to be addressed," said Pearl Kane, an associate professor of education at Teachers College. "However, ... as far as parents of color are concerned, there may be more interest in educational quality than desegregation."

Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, argued that vouchers are a way of combating the racial inequities of the regular public school system because they offer poor minority families the choices long enjoyed by affluent whites. "If we're looking at ways to improve racial integration and schools, we ought to be looking at ways to expand educational opportunities to families," he said.

In another study of racial segregation and private and public school choice, a University of California, Santa Cruz, economics professor found possible evidence that private-school vouchers or other school-choice programs may lead to increased segregation.

For his study, Robert W. Fairlie used data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study and the National Center for Education Statistics.

Lower levels of income among African-American and Hispanic families contribute substantially to the fact that far fewer of these students attend private schools than whites, Mr. Fairlie said. And the private schools that whites attend tend to be less integrated than public schools, while blacks and Hispanics attend private schools that are slightly more integrated than public schools.

"These findings can be interpreted as providing both evidence that vouchers will lead to increased segregation and evidence suggesting that vouchers will lead to decreased segregation," he said, prompting laughter from his audience.

Furthermore, Mr. Fairlie made the case that "a definitive answer to whether vouchers will increase racial segregation is not possible until several large-scale experimental programs have been implemented and evaluated."

Only three states have publicly funded voucher programs—Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin—and the longest-running of these, in Milwaukee, is barely 10 years old. Other researchers argued, however, that there is enough evidence available to warn federal and state policymakers who are pursuing expanded school choice programs.

"It's too easy for us as academics to say we need more research," said Jay Heubert, an associate professor of education at Teachers College. "In many states and districts, the train is leaving the station."

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Vol. 19, Issue 38, Page 6

Published in Print: May 31, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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Web Resources
  • The National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education has posted the agenda for the "School Choice and Racial Diversity" conference, including links to paper abstracts.
  • Read "A Choice for the Chosen," January 1999, by Cornell University Professor Jeremy Rabkin, from a special issue of the the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review devoted to school choice. Rabkin argues that Jews in particular should be more favorable toward school choice because, by allowing more Jewish parents to send their children to Jewish day schools, it would strengthen Jewish community—and in this way foster "religious diversity."
  • In School Choice and Urban School Reform, December 1997, Peter W. Cookson, Jr. and Sonali M. Shroff, Teachers College, Columbia University, evaluate existing school choice plans (including Massachusetts' "desegregation plan") and offer recommendations for extending the potential benefits of school choice to socially disadvantaged children.
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