Of course, there are exceptions. Research shows that vouchers could promote integration by facilitating the movement of black, Latino, or American Indian students from public schools where they make up the majority to more diverse private schools. But the larger pattern, Potter finds, is one of segregation and white flight—that is, when white families use vouchers to move their children to predominantly white private schools. Many programs with broader eligibility criteria, like Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program, tend to divert a majority of white students to private schools.
Still, she argues, there are ways to expand school choice while also providing opportunities for diversity. The main solution, as outlined in the report, is to expand magnet and charter schools that are designed for integration.
In cases where private-school voucher programs already exist, Potter says, students could benefit from safeguards that prevent segregation. “Many conversations around private-school vouchers open with the premise of expanding choice for the most disadvantaged families, especially low-income families and families of color,” she says. But the reality doesn’t always match the premise. “We need to look at the ways in which students using vouchers do not always fit that profile.”
This means restricting vouchers to schools that meet a minimum threshold of diversity, or eliminating vouchers in private schools with discriminatory admissions policies—a situation Potter finds is all too common. (The education-news website The 74, an Atlantic partner, has chronicled a handful of voucher programs with policies that discriminate against students on the basis of faith, sexual orientation, or special needs.) In districts that insist on using voucher programs, Potter also suggests moving away from universal programs toward those that specifically target low-income students in low-performing public schools. While she estimates this could make programs “less likely to exacerbate segregation,” the programs remain an unlikely method of integration.
Because only 400,000 students in the United States are currently enrolled in voucher programs, the impacts of these policy changes are difficult to predict. “The research is definitely limited, in part, by the fact that voucher programs are currently limited,” Potter says. But she also finds that programs in other nations “offer a window” into how an expanded voucher program might look in America. In places like Chile or Sweden, for instance, large-scale voucher programs are often tied to increased segregation. It’s not a big leap then to predict that additional programs in the United States would do the same.