Could School Choice Be a Solution for Segregation in Private Schools?

In September, Matt Di Carlo and Kinga Wysienska-Di Carlo published an interesting research brief for the Albert Shanker Institute, wherein they used data from the Common Core of Data and the Private School Universe Survey (both administered by the US Department of Education) to track levels of segregation in public, private and charter schools in Washington, D.C.

They found that private schooling in the district is a large driver of segregation, because even though private schools enroll only 15 percent of the district’s students, they enroll 60 percent of the district’s white students. This drives, depending on the estimate, between 25 and 40 percent of segregation of the district as a whole.

Now, this careful analysis was done a disservice by the news media. Local radio network WAMU ran with the headline “Private Schools in D.C. Represent Roadblock to Integration.” US News and World Report called private schools “The New Culprit in School Segregation.”

Private schooling is not a “new” culprit in school segregation, and private schools are not a roadblock to integration. Unfortunately, the same old culprits—housing patterns and economics—continue to block the road to integration.

The authors of the report were careful not to ascribe motives to the various actors in the district, and shy of looking into the hearts of the families involved, we won’t know the full story of why the district’s schools look the way that they do.

But we can address part of the story. There can be no disputing that one reason why there aren’t more African-American and Latino children in private schools is because most African-American and Latino families in the district cannot afford private schools. White folks can. (According to a recent study, the median household income of white families in Washington, D.C., is $120,000, while the median household income for African-American households is only $41,000.)

That is why the private schools are overwhelmingly white. That means that, at least in some part, this is an access problem. And, if you see this problem as an access problem (and I would argue our generally less segregated higher education system and the voucher-like supports that have helped more and more low-income students and students of color attend them would support this interpretation), then we have a ready-made set of solutions: private school choice programs. Help families of color afford private schools and those schools will become less segregated. As they become less segregated, the city as a whole will become less segregated.

The research supports this view. Of the ten studies that have been conducted measuring whether or not the offer of private school vouchers improved integration, nine found positive results and only one found a null result. The most recent and extensive research, conducted by Anna Egalite, Jonathan Mills and Patrick Wolf, found that in a third of the transfers driven by the Louisiana Scholarship Program, both the public school that a student left and the private school they transferred to became less segregated. Fifty-seven percent of transfers had a mixed result, improving integration in one sector while increasing segregation in another, and only nine percent were harmful to integration in both sectors. Not a slam dunk, but definitely trending in the right direction.

There is no one policy solution that can wash away the stain of racism from our nation or its schooling system. However, by empowering historically marginalized families with the financial support to attend the schools that best meet the needs of their children, we can work to remedy the problem—and help them get a great education.