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School Choice FAQs

Can school choice lead to more integrated schools?

The research shows that students in school choice programs attend more integrated schools than their public school counterparts. All of the available empirical research finds vouchers are moving students into private schools that are substantially less segregated than public schools.

On average, private school classrooms are more integrated than nearby public school classrooms; public schools are segregated primarily because of residential segregation. Attendance at public schools is determined largely by where people live, which guarantees that segregation in housing patterns will be reproduced in public schools. Desegregation efforts oftentimes fail because they are geographically limited; white families who move to the suburbs cannot be forced legally to bus their children across municipal lines. Private schools, by contrast, can draw students with no limitation to geography. In fact, private schools typically draw from a much larger area than public schools. That means private schools can mitigate the effects of residential segregation in a way public schools cannot.

MYTH: Vouchers will lead to increased segregation.

Opponents often claim that vouchers will lead to racial segregation. They argue that white parents would use vouchers to choose segregated schools. Many believe private schools create a segregated environment compared to public schools, and perpetuate a system of inequality.

For some, the idea of vouchers leading to racial segregation dates back to southern segregationists in the 1950s. Then, vouchers were viewed briefly as a way to maintain segregation in the classroom. Though the idea quickly died, the stigma that vouchers will divide schools by race continues in the minds of some.

FACT: Private schools break down racial barriers.

School choice is disproportionately a minority-supported issue.1 Moreover, private schools in voucher programs are required not to discriminate.

Public schools, by contrast, are heavily segregated.2 In the current government school system, school attendance is determined by where students live. As a result, it is difficult for public schools to avoid reproducing the segregation that arises from housing patterns.

Efforts to desegregate public schools, such as busing students to different districts, are unpopular with families and have been unsuccessful in substantially reducing racial segregation in public schools. As a result, it seems unlikely that desegregation will be a reality in public schools in the near future.

Whereas public schools must adhere to district lines, private schools are able to draw from a much wider range of students. And parents are more likely to trust private schools to handle the challenges of a multiracial environment; federal data confirm racial disruptions are less common in private schools than in public ones.3 This gives private schools an opportunity to create a more diverse student body. Indeed, studies have shown that private schools are pulling ahead of public schools when it comes to integration.

EVIDENCE: Research shows private schools in voucher programs are less segregated than public schools.

To get an accurate measurement of segregation in schools, segregation must be defined in a way that measures the racial composition of the school by an objective standard. Unfortunately, some research uses flawed methods to measure segregation. Under one common research method, a school that is 98 percent white is considered perfectly integrated if it is in a school district that is also 98 percent white. This is regarded as complete integration even if its neighboring district is 98 percent minority. A better method is to compare each school to its metropolitan area rather than to its district or municipality (which may itself be drawn with segregated boundaries). Another method is to measure racial homogeneity—for example, measuring the percentage of schools that are at least 90 percent white or minority. Research based on these methods shows private schools in voucher programs are less racially homogenous and more closely resemble their metro areas than public schools.

Nine studies using valid empirical methods have compared segregation in voucher-participating private schools to segregation in nearby public schools. Eight found that students using vouchers are attending private schools that are less segregated than nearby public schools, and the ninth found that Milwaukee students who transfer into the voucher program experience no different racial impact than students who transfer into a different public school. As to Milwaukee, one study examined a sample of 3,669 Milwaukee Public School students who were chosen to resemble voucher students in Milwaukee. The authors then looked at those students who transferred into the voucher program between 2006–07 and 2008–09, and compared them to students who transferred to other public schools in those years. It turned out that there was no difference in how transferring students affected racial integration either at their original school or at their new school.4

Also in Milwaukee, racial demographics were studied in Milwaukee private schools between 1994–95 and 1998–99, as the Milwaukee voucher was being expanded. The authors found the voucher program “contributed to a noticeable increase in racial and ethnic balance in private school,” while having “no major impact on overall racial and ethnic balance in the Milwaukee Public Schools.” The authors also found, between 1994–95 and 1998–99, the private school percent-minority rose to 35.7 percent from 27.4 percent, while the percent-white dropped to 64.3 percent from 72.6 percent. Without the expansion of the voucher program, private schools would have had more whites and fewer minorities (based on the assumption that all of the voucher recipients would have remained in public schools absent the voucher program). Moreover, a higher proportion of minority students in Milwaukee Public Schools (54.4 percent) were in racially isolated schools (compared to 38 percent of Catholic school students and 49.8 percent of all private school students).5

The authors of that report followed up with a study that included Milwaukee data from the 1999–2000 school year. The analysis, using data from 86 of 91 participating private schools, as well as every public school, reached similar conclusions: 42.9 percent of voucher students were in racially isolated schools, compared to 50.3 percent of public school students. The number of students in religious schools that were racially isolated was even lower: 30.1 percent.6 A similar study found 49.8 percent of voucher students were at racially isolated schools compared to 54.4 percent of public school students.7

Also in Milwaukee, an analysis was conducted comparing private schools to public schools and how well they mirrored the racial proportion of the metropolitan area as a whole. The author found “private schools participating in Milwaukee’s voucher program were less segregated than Milwaukee Public Schools, with the difference equal to about 13 points on the segregation index.”8

In Cleveland, public and voucher schools’ racial demographics were compared to the metropolitan area. It was found that the area’s public schools were highly segregated—fully 60.7 percent of public students attended schools that were virtually all white or all black.9 To be sure, about 50 percent of voucher students also attended such schools, but only “5.2 percent of public school students in the metropolitan area attend schools that have a racial composition that is within 10 percent of the average racial composition,” compared to 19 percent of voucher students.10 The author concluded that “despite court orders and political pressure to improve integration in the public schools, the Cleveland Scholarship Program offers families a better opportunity for a racially integrated school experience.”11

In further analyzing segregation patterns in Cleveland, one author found “private schools participating in Cleveland’s voucher program were 18 points less segregated, on average, than Cleveland public schools on the segregation index, which compares the racial composition of schools to the racial composition of school-age children in the greater metropolitan area.”12

In Washington, D.C., one study evaluated results after the first year of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher program for low-income D.C. residents.13 The lack of integration was very striking when authors considered how many schools were racially homogeneous: “a weighted average 85.4 percent of the District’s public schools have student populations that are at least 90 percent racially homogeneous, and 84.4 percent of them have student populations that are at least 95 percent homogeneous. Among private schools participating in D.C.’s voucher program, however, a weighted average of about 47.3 percent have student populations that are at least 90 percent racially homogeneous, and about 42.8 percent are 95 percent or more racially homogeneous.”14

In Louisiana, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit alleging that the Louisiana Scholarship Program impeded federal school-desegregation efforts initiated in the 1970s. However, a study using data from the first year of the program shows that among voucher transfers for which data are available, 83 percent have positive impacts on the racial integration of the sending school and the result for receiving schools is not statistically significant.15


Racial Segregation in Schools

Author(s)YearPositive EffectNo Visible EffectNegative Effect
LouisianaEgalite and Mills2014X
MilwaukeeGreene, Mills, and Buck2010X
D.C.Greene and Winters2005X
MilwaukeeFuller and Greiveldinger2002X
MilwaukeeFuller and Mitchell2000X
MilwaukeeFuller and Mitchell2000X

Note: This table shows all empirical studies using all methods.

Sources: Greg Forster, A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, 2013), p. 21,; Anna J. Egalite and Jonathan N. Mills, “The Louisiana Scholarship Program: Contrary to Justice Department Claims, Student Transfers Improve Racial Integration,” EducationNext 14, no. 1 (Winter 2014), pp. 66-69,



1. The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice conducted 26 statewide surveys, a survey in Washington, DC, and four national surveys over a six-year period, 2009–2015, and surveys consistently indicated greatest levels of voucher support among minority and disadvantaged demographic communities;

2. Charles T. Clotfelter, “Public School Segregation in Metropolitan Areas,” Land Economics 75, no. 4 (Nov. 1999), pp. 487-504,

3. Jay P. Greene, “Civic Values in Public and Private Schools,” in Learning from School Choice, ed. Paul Peterson and Bryan Hassel (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1998), pp. 83-106,

4. Greene, Jonathan N. Mills, and Stuart Buck, The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program’s Effect on School Integration, SCDP Milwaukee Parental Choice Program Evaluation Reports 20 (Fayetteville: Univ. of Ark., Dept. of Education Reform, School Choice Demonstration Project, 2010),

5. Howard L. Fuller and George A. Mitchell, The Impact of School Choice on Racial and Ethnic Enrollment in Milwaukee Private Schools, Current Education Issues 99-5 (Milwaukee: Marquette Univ., Institute for the Transformation of Learning, 1999).

6. Fuller and Mitchell, The Impact of School Choice on Integration in Milwaukee Private Schools, Current Education Issues 2000-02 (Milwaukee: Marquette Univ., Institute for the Transformation of Learning, 2000).

7. Fuller and Deborah Greiveldinger, “The Impact of School Choice on Racial Integration in Milwaukee Private Schools,” Aug. 2002, American Education Reform Council Manuscripts.

8. Greg Forster, Segregation Levels in Milwaukee Public Schools and the Milwaukee Voucher Program, School Choice Issues in the State (Indianapolis: Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, 2006),

9. Greene, “The Racial, Economic, and Religious Context of Parental Choice in Cleveland” (paper presented at the annual meeting for the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, Washington, D.C., November 5, 1999),

10. Ibid., p. 7.

11. Ibid., p. 8.

12. Forster, Segregation Levels in Cleveland Public Schools and the Cleveland Voucher Program, School Choice Issues in the State (Indianapolis: Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, 2006), p. 7,

13. Greene and Marcus A. Winters, An Evaluation of the Effect of D.C.’s Voucher Program on Public School Achievement and Racial Integration After One Year, Education Working Papers 10 (New York: Manhattan Institute, Center for Civic Innovation, 2006),

14. Ibid., p. 8.

15.  Anna J. Egalite and Jonathan N. Mills, “The Louisiana Scholarship Program: Contrary to Justice Department Claims, Student Transfers Improve Racial Integration,” EducationNext 14, no. 1 (Winter 2014), pp. 66-69,


Suggested Citation
“Can School Choice Lead to More Integrated Schools?,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, last modified July 31, 2015,

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