School Choice and Segregation: Fact and Fiction

According to a study released in mid-May by The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, “one in six students attend a school where over 90% of their peers were of the same race in the 2018-19 school year.” The publication of the report was timed to mark the 68th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision which ruled that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional.

While this may be news to some, the results are hardly surprising. For varied reasons, people tend to live in areas populated by those similar in race and class. And to complete the picture, we have a ridiculous zip-code mandated education system, which, courtesy of the Big Government-Big Teacher Union duopoly, forces children to go to the public school that is closest to their home – no matter how awful it might be – throughout most of the country.

Then, on the educational freedom front, a RealClear Opinion Research poll in February revealed that 72% of the respondents support school choice, with just 18% opposed. The results don’t vary much by race, with 77% of Hispanics, 72% of Whites, 70% of Blacks, and 66% of Asians expressing support.

In March, the American Federation of Children released the findings of a survey which shows that 77% of those surveyed support education-savings accounts (ESAs), which allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted but multiple uses. Interestingly, the poll finds that 75% of Democrats support ESAs, as do 85% of Hispanic voters and 84% of Black voters.

And unsurprisingly, when any privatization measure shows promise, the teacher unionistas and their fellow travelers step up their deceitful propaganda campaign. Traditionally, their argument has revolved around money. The unions claim that “privatization siphons funds from public schools.” This is a terrible argument for so many reasons, but mostly because we should be funding students, not systems. The union’s other main talking point – used increasingly these days – is that school choice is racist.

The ever-quotable Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, insists, “Make no mistake: This use of privatization, coupled with disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.” (A question for Weingarten and other choice-haters: While you despise any public money going to a parent who wants to send their child to a private school, you praise Pell Grants. These federal dollars go to needy college students, and can be used to attend private colleges, including religious schools like Notre Dame and Brigham Young. But on the k-12 level, giving parents choices – vouchers, ESA’s, etc., especially if used at a religious school – is your worst nightmare. Why is the private option perfectly okay for college students, but not elementary and high schoolers?)

The rarely coherent teacher union mouthpiece Diane Ravitch blogged in early May that the “origins of school choice are well-known; resistance to the Brown decision.” She blathers on, referring to libertarian Milton Friedman as a “right-winger,” and asserts that “Republicans are dedicated to destroying public schools, and stealing their funding.” Then doubling up on her wackiness, she exits with, “My addendum: if they destroy our public schools, they will destroy public libraries, public lands, the right to vote and, in time, our democracy.”

The National Education Association, the biggest union in the country, is a pit-bull on the issue. It regularly slams any privatization measure. In an extended piece on their website, the union trots out all the usual bromides – including that choice will lead to resegregation.

Homeschooling is also in the crosshairs of the purveyors of the segregation myth. In May, MSNBC got into the act, sharing a tweet claiming that homeschooling is being driven by “the insidious racism of the American religious right.”  

And now for some facts.

Regarding the siphon argument, Martin Lueken, Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis at EdChoice, researched the actual school choice participation rates and found that it “does not have a negative effect on public-school systems or their funding. In fact, research suggests that greater take-up in choice programs leads to better student outcomes for the vast majority of students choosing to remain in public schools. Looking at these facts, it seems clear that the claims of exodus and harm caused by choice programs are greatly exaggerated.”

Another analysis examined 11 choice programs across eight states and D.C. Of the 26 studies examining the effects of these programs on public school students, 24 reveal positive effects, one study shows no visible effect, and only one finds negative effects.

Concerning segregation, 10 empirical studies have examined private school choice programs, and nine find that the programs reduce it, while one shows no visible difference. Not one revealed that choice leads to any racial discrimination whatsoever.

Despite the ridiculous homeschooling assertion made by MSNBC, the number of Black homeschoolers jumped, from 3.3% to 16.1% in 2020. Thus, Black children are homeschooling in much greater numbers than their White counterparts.

The Milton Friedman allegation is miles beyond inaccurate. In fact, Friedman and likeminded souls began touting vouchers as a strategy to combat segregation. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, researcher Phillip Magness explains that Virginia’s segregationist hard-liners recognized the likely outcomes of school choice and began attacking it “as an existential threat to their white-supremacist order.”

So, now just who are really the racists? The ones who want to free Blacks to choose their schools? Or those who force them to go to their frequently failing zip-code mandated school?

Going forward, school choice should be branded as a civil rights issue. Lt. Col Allen West said it best in a recent opinion piece.

“We must reassert educational freedom and parental choice in America, this is the new civil rights battlefield. My very own parents made the decision about my early education realizing that a good quality education unlocks the doors to equality of opportunity. If we continue down this current path we lessen the opportunities for our children, but we increase the ability for others to determine their outcomes. If taxpayers, parents, are the ones funding public education, then they are the investors and have a definitive interest in their return on investment.”

Amen, brother West!

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

The Public School Monopoly Is Immoral

But when the polarization of American politics creates a divide where public school teachers have an overwhelming financial interest in one side of the debate, there is a third and decisive argument for school choice: namely, that public schools are increasingly inclined to slant what is taught with institutionally self-serving propaganda. So much so that school systems can no longer guarantee parents that their children are being educated in ways consistent with their family’s values and beliefs.

The enthusiasm of public school teachers and especially their unions for the liberal-progressive side of today’s ideological rift is not hard to understand. It was just over a half-century ago when President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed a new function for American public schools, insisting they should become the primary means for breaking the cycle of poverty and bettering poor children’s lives. “Education is the only valid passport from poverty,” he said, later signing what was to become the cornerstone of his War on Poverty, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), into law.

The good news for educators was a lot more money. In 31 states, according to Katharine B. Stevens, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, per-student spending more than doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars between 1972 and 2017, tripling in 14 others and the District of Columbia. Since President Johnson’s time, K-12 education has, in fact, become states’ single largest general-fund expenditure, with the nation’s total budget for elementary and secondary education now exceeding $700 billion annually.

The bad news about all this spending was that it was accompanied by an expectation for results, which has become a growing source of embarrassment for both teachers and administrators. With the exception of a relatively few affluent suburban school districts—which tens of thousands of American families have literally bankrupted themselves to buy into over the years—U.S. public schools have continued to rank at or near the bottom of academic comparisons with other countries. Indeed, results from the 2019 bi-annual National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) of U.S. fourth and eighth graders show that low-performing students have made none of the gains Johnson originally promised.

To give public educators their due, there did seem to be a sincere (if somewhat bizarre) effort to improve K-12 curricula early on. Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, teachers experimented with a technique called “discovery learning,” which had children try to teach themselves. They later tried “open classrooms,” which literally removed the walls that had traditionally separated students from teachers and different age groups from each other.

the more obvious it became that real academic improvement meant opening K-12 education to outside competition—from charter schools, independent schools, private tutoring, home schools, and most recently online academies—the more teachers unions began to discover a cause even more important than higher reading and math scores: engineering social justice. It began perhaps innocently enough with a greater emphasis on bilingual instruction, softer disciplinary techniques, and multicultural awareness programs. But with time it became clear just how effectively a never-ending succession of progressive palliatives for racism and sexism—minimizing testing and grading, ending the grading of homework, making grade level advancement automatic, eliminating selective-admission public schools, and recognizing multiple valedictorians—could shield both teachers and administrators from any academic accountability.

As Williams College political science professor Darel E. Paul has suggested, antiracism and related woke policies even allowed failing professionals to pose as heroes, defying the “tyranny” of traditional academic standards to champion more equitable schooling outcomes. Progressivism not only gave public educators the appearance of shouldering “noble tasks,” but conveniently justified their ever-growing salaries and benefits to accomplish those tasks.

(In the wake of President Trump’s January 6 D.C. rally speech, one suburban Connecticut superintendent was apparently so taken with his progressive mission as to publicly attack every local parent who had ever re-tweeted a Trump remark, shouted “lock her up,” agreed that Biden was not up to the job, or countered BLM with “all lives matter.” Each one of them, he posted to his Facebook page, was “a co-conspirator who has sided with domestic terrorism.”)

Unfortunately, few human institutions are capable of simultaneously upholding two competing worldviews. The result is that what began as a progressive set of policies related to how children are educated has increasingly changed what children are taught. In other words, the progressive outlook once associated with adjuncts to learning—school assembly programs, extracurricular activities, teacher development seminars, and the kinds of grading policies already mentioned—has more and more become embedded in the subject matter itself.

And not just in the most obvious places, such as history and the social sciences, but in math and English as well. In Seattle, for example, the public schools have adopted an “anti-western” or “re-humanized” mathematics curriculum, which advances failing students on the grounds that they should not have to learn a subject intrinsically unfair to people of color.

When it comes to English, Wall Street Journal columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon has chronicled growing efforts around the country to ban everything from Homer to Shakespeare to F. Scott Fitzgerald. With what is left, she says, “The subtle complexities of literature are being reduced to the crude clanking of ‘intersectional’ power struggles.”

In January of last year, even the New York Times expressed concern at how widely different editions of the same public-school textbook could vary, depending on how liberal the state. “Classroom materials are not only shaded by politics,” wrote national correspondent Dana Goldstein, “but are also helping to shape a generation of future voters.”

Because public education is technically a state responsibility, some might argue for letting school boards deal with the growing problem of a progressively biased curriculum. But the fact that most people serving on local school boards typically do so because they have at least one child in the system means, as a practical matter, that educators have far more leverage over boards of education than boards have over teachers and administrators. Even those parents willing to challenge subject matter are usually no match for administrators “with advanced degrees [who] flash their credentials and have glib answers for every question,” laments Dr. Armand Fusco, a retired public school superintendent who has written extensively on the need for school board reform.

Indeed, the existence of easily manipulated school boards, combined with support from a vocal minority of left-leaning voters, has led to the creation of course content so clearly at odds with the larger community’s values as to be almost unbelievable. In the red state of Ohio, for example, the Department of Education started off the 2020 academic year by providing local social studies teachers with a resource it called its “Anti-Racist Allyship Starter Pack”—links to 200 op-eds, essays, and blog posts on such academically relevant topics as “In Defense of Looting,” “Capitalism is the Real Robbery,” and “The Case for Delegitimizing the Police.”

If by some miracle local boards did assert greater control over what is taught in their schools, they would still be in the morally dubious position of imposing a single perspective on a population more politically and culturally divided now than it has been since the Civil War. Having a greater say over the curriculum might be good news for those households comprising the majority view in each community, but what about the minority—left or right—who will continue being taxed to support a political and cultural agenda they abhor?

Are those families which remain at odds with the prevailing ideology to be dismissed as simply “out of luck?” As Michael McShane, director of national research for EdChoice, has observed, today’s public school district may still be a local organization, but the disagreements are now too deep for it ever to be a pluralistic one.

The traditional argument for giving public schools an exclusive call on government funding has been the desirability of instructing all of America’s children in the larger community’s shared civic values. But the strategic decision of professional educators to ideologically camouflage their academic shortcomings—combined with an unprecedented cultural divide—effectively means that in our time, fewer and fewer values are held in common.

For decades, the National Education Association (NEA) and other teachers unions fought school choice on the grounds that taxpayers’ dollars would inevitably end up funding religious schools; and public money, they said, should never support an ideology not universally shared. Ironically, that is an excellent argument for why today’s public schools should no longer keep their monopoly on government funding: every American parent has the right to protect his or her child from being propagandized by an alien ideology.

Dr. Lewis Andrews was executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy at Trinity College from 1999 to 2009. He is author of the new book Living Spiritually in the Material World (Fidelis Books).

Study Finds School Choice Improves Students’ Happiness

At a time countless students face obstacles that could permanently stunt their learning growth, school choice provides one obvious solution to help mitigate a ‘lost generation.’

At a time countless students face obstacles that could permanently stunt their learning growth, school choice provides one obvious solution to help mitigate a ‘lost generation.’

Impact on Suicide Rates

The study, released in December and conducted by a Cato Institute scholar and Western Carolina University economist, used two different methods to examine the impact of school choice on mental health. First, the researchers used examined variations in teenage (i.e., 15-19) suicide rates based on states’ different charter school laws. Charter schools—which receive taxpayer funding but whose charters free them from many of the bureaucratic obstacles of traditional public schools—represent a common form of school choice, with 3.3 million students enrolled at 7,500 schools in 44 different states.

The analysis yielded “robust” results: “We consistently find declines in suicides following the adoption of charter schools,” equivalent to a 10 percent decrease in the suicide rate for 15-19 year olds. The researchers found some reduction in suicides among students attending private schools after receiving opportunity scholarships (also known as vouchers). However, the results in the scholarship group did not rise to the level of statistical significance—possibly because scholarship programs are less developed than charter programs, with more recent origins and fewer student participants.

The researchers also examined how school attendance impacts the self-reported mental health of former students in adulthood, using a decades-long study of students aged 12-18 in 1997. Students who attended private school in 1997 were between 1.9-2.9 percentage points less likely to have a mental health condition in their late 20s and early 30s, based on a survey conducted in 2013.

Why School Choice Improves Mental Health

In putting the first-of-its-kind study in context, the researchers offered some possible explanations for why school choice can improve mental health. For starters, private schools and charter academies often put more emphasis on character, thereby discouraging bullying behaviors. The authors also noted that, for students bullied in traditional public schools due to their love of a specific subject—say, performing arts or science—moving to a private school focused on that subject would place them among like-minded students, alleviating a source of stress.

The authors also note the most obvious explanation for why school choice could improve student mental health: Parents and families get to pick the school that works best for their children—placing them in the best environment to succeed. Private schools in particular also face competitive pressures, because parents who do not feel their child is receiving an education worth their tuition dollars will enroll their children elsewhere.

All told, these beneficial effects on student mental health more than offset any added stress from a more intense academic environment, or the beneficial effects of higher spending by public schools (most of which has gone towards administrative staff rather than teaching). As the analysts conclude: “School choice improves mental health….As public attention focuses on the mental health of adolescents in the United States, the results imply that increased school choice advances the public goal of improving mental health outcomes.”

Put Children First

The results of this study provide yet another data point for policymakers to bolster the case for expanding school choice. On the state level, lawmakers should work to expand opportunity scholarship programs in their 2021 legislative sessions. In Washington DC, Joe Biden should rethink his newfound hostility towards charter schools, and instead come up with a platform that puts students’ needs—and not those of government bureaucrats or teachers’ unions—first.

Events over the past 12 months have put into stark relief the stakes of the education debate in this country. America’s youth need a better future than the current COVID-defined present—and the failed status quo of the past. School choice can help them, and us, get there.

Christopher Jacobs, The Federalist