Will School Choice Segregate Schools Along Racial, Religious, and Economic Lines?


The school voucher debate has been properly focused on issues of educational quality and constitutionality. But it is also important to consider vouchers' impact on our social fabric.

Any large-scale voucher program would cause grave harm to public schools with, the evidence indicates, precious little benefit. Vouchers would also lead to even greater social stratificationby socioeconomic status, race, disability, and religion. That's a disastrous road to take at a time when the nation is becoming more diverse ethnically and religiously.

The tireless efforts to bring Brown v. Board of Education to the U. S. Supreme Court and subsequent campaigns for integration were grounded in the nation's noblest ideals that race, ethnicity, religion, and economic background ought not be barriers to opportunity nor borderlines setting communities apart. As the political momentum for school vouchers builds, it's worth remembering and examining those values, because vouchers will do them grave violence.

We know that American public schools are already stratified. Local wealth-based funding has produced enormous inequities in educational opportunity between prosperous suburban schools and poorer urban and rural districts. Demographic shifts have left many city school systems with high concentrations of students in poverty. Voucher proponents argue that a marketplace model will somehow solve the problems of struggling schools at the same time they are drained of resources. But in fact, vouchers would worsen stratification at the same time that they would turn public schools into castoffs with the neediest students and fewer resources to serve them.

A study conducted for the National Conference of State Legislatures in 1995 found that marketizing education worsens existing inequalities. In addition, voucher programs would subsidize parents who have already chosen to send their children to private schools, a misallocation of scarce education dollars. Stanford University professor Henry Levin recently concluded that "choice" plans in Europe increased segregation by socioeconomic status, because, over time, parents with means grew more aggressive about moving their children to schools with students of similar economic status. In America, where race and ethnicity remain closely entwined with economic status, that trend would result in even sharper economic and racial segregation.

The inevitable result of such skimming is that public schools will become the poor stepchildren of our education system. Here the most difficult and costly to educate will be taught in schools drained of resources, stripped of better students to serve as role models, ignored by the polity, and otherwise left to fend for themselves.

Meanwhile, the students who have "escaped," as voucher proponents frequently put it, will be taught in schools where students are chosen as a result of admissions policies that put more emphasis on sameness than on diversity. Doubt that? Here are some facts: 85 percent of private school students attend sectarian schools, a little more than half of them Catholic. Huge numbers of these sectarian schools say that their top educational priority is to advance their religious beliefs. Fully 55 percent of Catholic school principals and 59 percent of conservative Christian school principals tell federal researchers that "religious development" is their school's first priority.

Inevitably such institutions will attract and select students of like faith. That's fine for propagating the faith, but not for public policy. Wide-scale voucher programs would encourage- and pay for with tax dollars- balkanization and segregation of American children by religion.

The same is true for people with disabilities. About three-quarters of all private schools lack the facilities or staff expertise special education students need. So children with disabilities will inevitably end up segregated in public schools. That would be a terrible step backwards for K-12 education. Walk through any public school these days and you'll see something that wasn't in evidence 20 years ago: Children with and without disabilities learning side by side. Students don't think it's unusual to have classmates in wheelchairs; quite to the contrary, it's the only experience they've had in school. They'll carry that acceptance with them throughout their lives, but not if we re-segregate students with disabilities.

Public schools are the primary institution in which young people learn with and from those who are different. This is important preparation for living and working in the United States of the twenty-first century. Instead of adopting policies that will worsen educational inequities and increase social fragmentation, it's time to forge a common commitment to strengthen public schools and guarantee every child from every background the opportunity for a quality public education.

Vouchers are a bad idea for many reasons. They'll drain money from the public schools that will continue to teach the majority of kids, and they'll do irreparable harm to the Constitutional separation of church and state. But they should be rejected, if for no other reason, because they will divide the next generation of Americans by race, class, disability, and faith.