School Choice and Racial Integration Go Hand in Hand

Opponents of parental choice in education argue that school choice increases racial segregation. But a new review of the research evidence suggests that giving parents the freedom to choose their children’s schools has actually increased racial integration.

More than fifty years have passed since Brown v. Board of Education outlawed racial segregation in American public schools. Many policies, including school busing, were implemented to promote integration in public education in the decades that followed. Yet many American public schools remain segregated along racial lines.

Even with years of improvement in race relations, this result shouldn’t be a surprise. The public school system assigns students to schools based on where they live, which means that a public school is only as diverse as its community. The combination of segregated housing patterns and location-based school assignment has created an environment in which millions of children attend largely segregated public schools.

But not all schools are stuck. In a new report from the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, Dr. Greg Forester reviews the research on school choice and integration and concludes that school choice improves school diversity. He also explains why the “claims made by voucher opponents [about racial segregation] are empirically unsupportable” in two specific ways.

First, empirical research finds “no substantial difference between segregation levels in public and private schools.” Instead, “at the classroom level, a preferable level of analysis, the research indicates that private schools actually are less segregated than public schools.” And “even at the school level, the research finds no substantial difference between public and private schools.”

Second, school voucher programs do not lead to segregation. In fact, the opposite is true. In Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., voucher students’ private schools are more racially integrated than the public schools the students would otherwise have attended.

Consider the Washington, D.C., opportunity scholarship program, created by Congress in 2004. Jay Greene and Marcus Winters of the University of Arkansas found that voucher students’ private schools were more integrated than their peers’ public schools. As Forester explains, they found that “85 percent of public school students attend racially homogenous schools (more than 90 percent white or 90 percent minority), compared to 47 percent of students in participating private schools.”

Forester’s analysis is another reason to support policies that give parents the ability to choose their children’s schools. And his conclusions are good reason to be optimistic about society’s progress on racial integration over the past fifty years. According to the best research, school voucher programs in urban communities lead to greater integration than the current public school system. What the Supreme Court sought to accomplish more than a generation ago with mandates on public education, today is happening through a system of voluntary choice.