School choice aids and abets segregation—or so goes the logic of many of the policy’s loudest critics. But a study recently published in Education and Urban Society provides evidence to the contrary: A voucher program actually reduced racial stratification in the public schools that families decided to leave.
The focus of the study, titled “The Impact of Targeted School Vouchers on Racial Stratification in Louisiana Schools,” is the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), which provides state money for students to attend private schools. Researchers found that as families participated in the program, the student bodies of the public schools they opted out of began to more closely reflect the racial makeup of the school’s surrounding community. In other words, the public schools became more integrated.
The findings stand apart from previous research conducted by groups like the National Education Policy Center that found many school-choice programs result in “an unsettling degree of segregation.” Patrick Wolf, one of the co-authors of the study and an education professor at the University of Arkansas, attributed the new findings to Louisiana’s demographic makeup and emphasized that the rollout and examination of school-choice programs should be “heavily context dependent.” About a third of Louisiana’s population is African American.
Unlike some voucher programs, LSP is “double targeted,” Wolf said; in order to be eligible for the funds, a student’s family must make less than 250 percent above the federal poverty level—approximately $61,500 for a family of four—and be enrolled in a public school receiving a letter grade of “C” or below according to state standards. Essentially, a student must come from both a low-income background and be enrolled in a school that is underperforming in order to participate in the program.
But despite the fact that, by some estimates, 380,000 children were eligible for the vouchers, just 6,900 students actually took advantage of them for the 2016-17 school year, a number that, despite its relatively paltry size, Wolf said isn’t shockingly low. “Parents have an ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ perspective on their child’s education,” Wolf said. “What you see in terms of initial participants in private school-choice programs are parents who are desperate to get their kid out of an educational situation.” But whether those initial participants got to reap the benefits the study outlines isn’t yet clear.
Yes, the study “indicates that the vast majority (82 percent) of LSP transfers have reduced racial stratification in the voucher students’ former public schools.” The operative word in that analysis, though, is “former.” The families that used the voucher option to attend a private school facilitated integration in a public school their child would no longer attend. And, in fact, the study found that the students who used vouchers in Louisiana reduced racial stratification in the private schools they selected just 45 percent of the time: More often, Wolf said, “they actually increase the segregation in the private school … they push the student demographics of the private school further away from the ideal standards from the community.”
Eighty percent of the 1,741 students in the study’s sample are black, and Wolf explained that in many cases, families were opting out of public schools that were overwhelmingly African American to begin with. These students’ departures, because of the skewed demographics that exist as a result of decades of de facto and de jure segregation laws, left the public schools less racially stratified as a result. And, Wolf said, many of the private schools that students enrolled in may have been less racially segregated to begin with, but the student bodies were becoming more and more African American.
On top of that, early evidence on student achievement also points to negative outcomes for families that took advantage of the vouchers. According to a report on LSP conducted by the Brookings Institution last May, students who relocated to private schools via the vouchers recorded lower scores on standardized math and reading assessments: After one year in private school, a child who scored in the 50th percentile for math in his public school declined to the 34th percentile. Declines in reading scores were less significant—students dropped from the 50th percentile to the 46th percentile after a year in private school—but still apparent. Wolf emphasized that these early results don’t include information on how LSP affects educational attainment, which has been positively influenced by voucher programs in places such as Milwaukee and Washington, D.C.
School-choice programs like LSP are currently having somewhat of a moment in the American public discourse. The wave of unprecedented controversy that surrounded Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s Senate confirmation vote may be receding, but many citizens are emerging from the political fray with an increased understanding of education initiatives like school choice. According to Google Trends, searches for “school choice” and “vouchers” jumped significantly toward the end of January, coinciding with DeVos’s gaffe-filled Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing. And for his part, President Donald Trump proposed allocating $20 billion in federal education money to create block grants aimed at providing low-income children with more educational choices. If such a plan is to be implemented, the results from Wolf’s analysis could provide a blueprint for prospective trade-offs in educational achievement and racial diversity.
Ultimately, despite the ostensibly negative outcomes for families that decided to participate in LSP, Wolf referred to the study’s finding as “a win-win” for children in both public and private schools. “The public-school students get a more integrated environment in their public schools, and the private-school kids get to go to a school of choice.” Whether that choice is a positive outcome in and of itself remains to be seen.