Equity & Diversity

D.C. Schools That Take Vouchers Found to Be Less Racially Isolated

January 24, 2006 3 min read

A new study of the federal voucher program in the District of Columbia finds that private schools that accept students using the government tuition aid have more racial integration than the city’s public schools.

At the same time, the report’s authors detected no academic impact on nearby public schools after the program’s first year. Some voucher advocates argue that one benefit of the aid for private school tuition is that it may pressure public schools to improve.

“[T]he participating private schools were much less likely to be racially homogeneous” than the city’s public schools, said Jay P. Greene, an education professor at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the New York City-based Manhattan Institute. “It’s not as if integration in the participating private schools is wonderful, but it’s less bad.”

The study was jointly issued Jan. 18 by the Manhattan Institute, a think tank that generally backs vouchers, and Georgetown University’s School Choice Demonstration Project. It’s part of a series of independent studies of the federal voucher program designed to augment and complement a federally funded evaluation, which is headed by the Georgetown project.

“An Evaluation of the Effect of D.C.'s Voucher Program on Public School Achievement and Racial Integration After One Year” is available from the Manhattan Institute.

The new study looked at the initial effects of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers worth up to $7,500. During the 2004-05 academic year, about 1,000 students participated. The vouchers may be used to attend participating secular and religious private schools in Washington.

About half the participating private schools had student populations that were at least 90 percent racially homogeneous, the study says. By contrast, 85 percent of the District of Columbia’s public schools have at least 90 percent racial homogeneity.

The study also compared the racial makeup of the schools with the overall population of the Washington metropolitan area, encompassing the city and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs, which the report says is approximately 57 percent nonwhite. Voucher recipients, however, must live in Washington and attend private schools in the city.

For purposes of the analysis, all nonwhite students were considered in the same category

The study found that “very few” public school students in the city attend schools that approximate the area’s racial balance, while private school students are “somewhat more likely” to be enrolled in such schools.

Competitive Effect Studied

Still, the study offers cautions. “It is important to emphasize that, on average, neither public schools nor private schools in D.C. appear to have achieved what most people would consider racial integration,” the authors write.

Of those students who used vouchers to attend private schools in the 2004-05 academic year, 94 percent were African-American, the study notes.

The report also examined whether the voucher program was having any academic effect on public schools that were near private schools taking in voucher recipients. Their conclusion? In a word, no. There was neither a positive nor a negative impact.

But Mr. Greene says this isn’t surprising. “The [voucher] program was essentially designed not to produce an effect [on public schools] one way or another, and sure enough, that’s exactly what we found,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be over time.”

For example, public schools face little or no financial impact from the loss of students to the private schools, Mr. Greene said. Also, he added, the program’s small size limits its impact.

Chad J. d’Entremont, the assistant director of the Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, called the study “well done” overall. “There’s an effort to fairly present the evidence,” he said. “The program really isn’t far enough along to be fully evaluated.”

He said other research suggests that the academic impact of competition on public schools is minimal. “The benefits are very modest, and you have to weigh in both the social and financial costs,” he said.

Susan Nogan, a senior policy analyst at the National Education Association, which opposes vouchers, rejected the notion that competition will improve public schools. She also questioned the idea of using vouchers to promote racial and ethnic integration.

“While integration is absolutely a worthy objective, we shouldn’t be using federal funds to help private schools achieve it, particularly when it comes at the expense of public schools,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as D.C. Schools That Take Vouchers Found to Be Less Racially Isolated

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