By nominating Betsy DeVos as Education secretary, President-elect Donald Trump has waded into a deeply partisan battle over school choice.
Ms. DeVos, a wealthy Republican donor, has spent decades promoting publicly funded, privately run charter schools and vouchers for low-income students to use to attend private and religious schools. Teacher unions and other groups have decried her political activism as a stealth agenda to undermine traditional public schools.
Much of the debate has turned on whether or not school-choice programs yield improved educational outcomes and what happens to students who are left behind in schools struggling to cope after tax dollars have been diverted elsewhere.
What both charter schools and vouchers have in common, say critics, is that they perpetuate the racial segregation of US schools, even as the nation’s school-age population grows ever more diverse. While minority parents are being given more choices about where to enroll their children, these choices rarely extend to schools that are more integrated by race or ethnicity, critics say.
Instead, the choices for families in low-income, minority-dominated school districts are often between low-performing public schools and alternatives such as charters or voucher-dependent private schools with similar student bodies.
This is not always the case. One notable exception is Washington: The District of Columbia’s school voucher program did lead to more low-income students gaining admittance to top tier private schools such as Sidwell Friends.
But in Pennsylvania, the share of African-American students attending segregated charter schools was higher than in the traditional public schools that they’d come from, according to Erica Frankenberg, the coauthor of a 2015 study and an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University. A similar pattern was seen among Latino and white students, particularly in urban districts with charter schools. Students were likely to end up in a classroom where more of their peers were of the same race or ethnicity.
“Charter school transfers are going to more segregated settings. That’s pretty alarming for publicly funded schools,” says Professor Frankenberg.
The United States Supreme Court declared the notion of "separate but equal" unconstitutional in Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954. Long-term studies of black adults who as children were subject to court-ordered desegregation programs, have found significant gains from attending integrated schools, including higher earnings and better health. But American schools have only gotten more segregated since the late 1980s.
A high proportion of minority students taking part in school-choice programs isn’t a surprise, given that many are located in urban districts with stressed public schools. And, to be sure, some of the charter schools are expressly designed to handle high-needs student populations.
Supporters of DeVos and her initiatives argue that it’s unrealistic to demand racial integration, since school district demographics reflect residential segregation that is beyond the remit of educational reformers.
“Choice supporters are aware of these issues and do care about them. But the most important thing is to increase the access for disadvantaged children to have a school for them that will serve their needs,” says Matthew Ladner, a senior fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, a libertarian research center in Arlington, Va., who supports DeVos’s nomination.
In Northeastern states like New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, more than half of black students attend schools with more than 90 percent minority students, a proportion that is higher than in any other region, including the South. Nationwide, the typical white student attends a school in which 72 percent of students are white and only 8 percent are black, according to a 2014 report by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Support among African-American families
Surveys of African-American families have found growing support since the 1990s for voucher programs and charter schools – support that tracks with growing frustration with public schools. Last October, the NAACP made waves when it passed a resolution opposing the expansion of charter schools, opening a rift among civil rights groups and black educators. One of the NAACP’s complaints was that charters had increased the segregation by race and ability of students; the disproportionate disciplining of black students at those schools was also cited.
Millions of students are enrolled in charter schools. Vouchers and tax-credit scholarships are smaller in scope: EdChoice, a pro-voucher group formerly known as the Friedman Foundation, puts the total at 364,000, led by Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania.
DeVos, who rarely gives interviews, told Philanthropy Round Table in 2013 that she wanted to provide choices to families in deprived neighborhoods. “I’m most focused on educational choice. But, thinking more broadly, what we are trying to do is tear down the mindset that assigns students to a school based solely on the ZIP code of their family’s home,” she said.
In theory, vouchers should promote racial integration by allowing parents of minority students to apply to more diverse private schools. But state-funded voucher programs rarely catapult low-income students into elite private schools with upper-income whites and Asians, education experts say. More commonly they funnel students into less selective religious schools and spur the creation of new minority-dominated private schools for voucher recipients, effectively a privatization.
The cases of Louisiana and Washington, D.C.
Under school-choice programs in Louisiana and Washington, D.C., minority students do tend to end up in more integrated classrooms, says Patrick Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas. In a study published in 2014, he found that Louisiana’s scholarship program resulted in less racial segregation in public schools from which students transferred and, to a lesser extent, in the private schools where they enrolled. This included 34 districts under federal desegregation orders.
Still, the effects can be modest. Transferring from a 100 percent black student body to one that is 85 percent is only a “marginal improvement,” says Professor Wolf, who supports school choice.
In Milwaukee, which first introduced school vouchers in 1990, Wolf found in 2012 that students had mostly transferred from heavily minority public schools to private schools with similar racial mixes. By contrast, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington has been more successful in enabling minority students to enroll in diverse and high achieving private schools.
“It’s certainly a benefit if school choice programs lead to more racially and income-based integrated schools. But when that doesn’t happen, and people are making free choices, I’m less concerned about that,” he says.