School Choice Will Help Integrate Michigan Schools

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


Opponents of school choice say we shouldn't allow parents to choose which schools their children attend because that will cause the segregation of students and schools by race and income.

Not only does this argument display a serious lack of confidence in the American people, it overlooks two pertinent facts: 1) America's private schools- where school choice opponents fear students will g- are far more racially integrated than public schools; and 2) Michigan's public schools are already among the most segregated in the country. In fact, it would be difficult to make them more so.

Let's take care of the second fact first. In "Resegregation in American Schools," released in June, the Harvard University Civil Rights Project listed Michigan as one of the most segregated states for African-American students.

In percentage of African-Americans in majority white schools, Michigan ranked third with 17.5 percent behind New York and California. In percentage of African Americans in 90 to 100 percent minority schools, Michigan ranked first with 61.6 percent. In percentage of whites in schools that are majority African-American, Michigan ranked second with 1 percent.

In other words, whether you are a white or an African-American public school student in Michigan, more than likely you go to school with people who look just like you. Add the fact that predominantly African-American schools also have high concentrations of students whose parents are poor, and you have precisely the situation opponents of school choice say will be "caused" if school choice moves forward. And as Michigan's cities, especially Detroit, continue to lose population, schools likely will become more segregated, both by income and by race.

U. S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley once expressed Americans' romanticized view of public schooling. "Quality public schools are the foundation of a democracy and a free-enterprise economic system," Riley opined. "The 'common school'the concept upon which our public school system was builtteaches children important lessons about the commonality and diversity of American culture. These lessons are conveyed not only through what is taught in the classroom, but the very experience of attending school with a diverse mix of students."

If only it were true. As an African-American high school student in New York City in the late sixties, I was assigned to one of the worst public schools in the system. I had to pass by one of the best public schools in the system in order to get there. Why? Because the school to which I was assigned was for African-Americans and the school I had to bypass was for whites.

Contrast this with my experience as an elementary school student at Our Lady of Victory, a parochial school in the South Bronx. I attended school with Irish, Italian, and Puerto Rican students in addition to students of my own race. This school took all comers, as most religious schools do today. Did I learn about the commonality and diversity of American culture at that school? Yes, I did.

You see, Secretary Riley is partially correct. You do learn more when you choose to attend school with a diverse mix of students. As a child I learned to love Salsa music when Salsa wasn't cool. I learned to love pasta cooked the way they do it in Northern Italy. I learned that not all Irish can sing. But most importantly, I learned that underneath the color of our skin, we're all the same.

Sadly, the average public school student in America, particularly in our inner cities, doesn't have the opportunity to learn in a racially and economically diverse classroom. America's truly integrated schools are not the public, but rather the private or independent schools, chosen and supported by parents. These are the true "common schools."

The National Association of Independent Schools reports that nearly 18 percent of their students are students of color. The Independent Schools of the Central States reports nearly the same number. The same is true for parochial schools, which are the most integrated schools in America, particularly in the inner cities.

In "Integration Where it Counts: A Study of Racial Integration in Public and Private School Lunchrooms," author Jay P. Greene of the University of Texas at Austin found that "private schools tend to offer a more racially integrated environment than do public schools." Why? Greene says public schools tend to replicate the segregation found in their attendance areas, while private schools tend to draw from a variety of neighborhoods. In another study, "Civic Values in Public and Private Schools," Greene found that, on average, private schools are not only better racially integrated, but also "display greater racial tolerance and generally convey stronger democratic values than do public schools."

Segregation by race and income is no reason to oppose school choice. It's a reason to champion it.