School Choice, Segregation and Democracy

How student stratification fragments our society and harms the common good
BY WILLIAM J. MATHIS AND KEVIN G. WELNER/School Administrator, January 2018

William Mathis Kevin Welner 
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos insists that school choice is “the new civil rights issue of our time.” Choice, she contends, resolves one or more (generally unspecified) types of discrimination by empowering individual parents — a sentiment expressed by many choice advocates.

These advocates were not at all happy, then, to hear American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten criticize voucher approaches as undermining civil rights. “Make no mistake,” Weingarten said in July, “this use of privatization, coupled with disinvestment, are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.“

Weingarten cited post-Brown history — including a 1964 Supreme Court case, Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County — documenting the use of a separate, private school option by segregationists to avoid public school desegregation orders.

In response to that speech, Jeanne Allen of the pro-voucher Center for Education Reform issued a call for Weingarten to resign as head of the AFT, wondering whether her “smug obstinacy” in using “race-baiting to blow-up the school choice discussion” was due to “insensitive ignorance or ruthless political calculation.”

Allen and her center also joined a chorus of choice advocates attacking the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which called for a charter school moratorium. In particular, the NAACP decried the lack of transparency and accountability by charter schools. Allen’s over-the-top reaction included a press release with the headline, “Martin Luther King Jr. Would Have Been Offended by the NAACP’s Position on Charter Schools.”

Stratifying Students
These repeated allusions to earlier civil rights struggles are not surprising, given how little progress we as a nation have made in addressing racial segregation in our schools. This remains true of neighborhood public schools, and it is particularly true of school choice policies. As we wrote in a 2016 review of the research on housing and school choice, current choice approaches “can and often [do] add a layer of segregation on top of housing segregation.”

These problems run deep. School stratification by race often is accompanied by overlapping stratification by wealth, by average test scores, by English language proficiency and by special education status. The resulting isolation and separation of our children and our communities undermine our core values and goals as a unified society, and they harm efforts to improve education.

We cannot realistically hope to move forward if we deny or attempt to deflect our segregation crises with false claims and misleading assurances. While the actions and motivations of racists acting over a half-century ago should not be collectively attributed to today’s advocates of school choice, this history counsels us to be extra vigilant about the effects of these policies and about how they might best be crafted so as to avoid segregation.

Individual children are harmed when they are separated by race and other characteristics, but this harm also extends to our larger society and democracy. A shift from democratic practices to market-driven forces is fundamentally rooted in a different set of values, where equality is not necessarily a basic principle.

In fact, incentives often drive stratified markets. Choice advocates tout the benefits of private school operators finding ways to appeal to families as “consumers,” and those benefits can indeed emerge. But market incentives can encourage private managers to favor some consumer families and push away others. Research by one of us (Welner) has identified at least a dozen ways that charter schools can shape their enrollment and control access — everything from location and advertising, to decisions about which student services and resources are offered, to admissions hurdles, to blatant pushout policies. Stratification is a natural outcome of these access-denying practices.

When schools shift from democratically run to privately run institutions, their very purpose itself can shift toward merely serving the private interests of customer parents. In that context, success is often realized by wooing more students who are lower-cost and higher-achieving.

Contrast this with the purposes of education memorialized in states’ constitutional provisions. To advance the common good, Massachusetts speaks to wisdom, knowledge and virtue among all groups of people. New Hampshire says that knowledge and learning must be spread throughout the various parts of the land. Vermont speaks of expanding virtue and preventing vice. The private benefits of an education received by individual children are valuable, but so are the societal benefits of a thoughtful, informed and united popu-lace.

The genius of the American educational system is not just in what it gives to the individual. It is in what it provides to society as a whole. We face the great challenge of providing equal opportunities and common values to an increasingly fragmented society. Can we sustain and transmit this democratic covenant of rights and responsibilities to a new generation? Can we do this in a society with increasing levels of privately run choice schools?

Undermining Goals
Segregated schools undermine democratic and educational goals, and research evidence points to at least four types of stratification associated with school choice:

» RACE. According to a 2011 research study by Erica Frankenberg, a professor of education and demography at Penn State, and her colleagues, 70 percent of black charter school students nationally “attend intensely segregated minority charter schools (which enroll 90-100 percent of students from under-represented minority backgrounds), or twice as many as the share of intensely segregated black students in traditional public schools.”

» POVERTY. A 2010 study by education professor Gary Miron of Western Michigan University found 70 percent of charter schools run by education management organizations were highly segregated, serving students with either high income or low income.

» EMERGING BILINGUALS. Miron also found emerging bilingual students (also known as English language learners) were generally underenrolled in schools run by education-management organizations, constituting only 4.4 percent of students in these firms’ charters compared to 11 percent of public school students nationally.

» STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2012 that charter schools enroll a lesser proportion of students with disabilities than do traditional public schools (8 percent versus 11 percent).

Miron’s examination of charters run by education management organizations reports the same trend but with a larger gap (7 percent versus 13 percent). Furthermore, charter schools tend to serve less severe and less costly disabilities. Service of students with disabilities varies greatly by charter school, with some mission-driven schools enrolling large percentages and some elite charters serving few or even none.

Flagging Achievement
Along with this increased stratification, vouchers and charter schools also have been disappointing in terms of achievement. Economist Dennis Epple at Carnegie Mellon University and his colleagues surveyed charter school research in 2015 and concluded, “Taken as a whole, the evidence suggests that, accounting for differences in population served, charter schools are not, on average, producing student achievement gains any better than traditional public schools.”

Voucher outcomes are even worse. Recent voucher studies in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and the District of Columbia all found that students’ test-score performance suffered after receiving a voucher, as compared to traditional public school students.

Against this lackluster record, policymakers must weigh the social, economic and moral costs to a democratic society resulting from greater stratification of schools.

Steps Forward
Even without school choice, America’s schools are shockingly segregated, in large part because of housing policies and school district boundaries. This segregation was not innocent happenstance — it resulted from overtly and covertly racist policies, such as red-lining for home loans.

There’s more than enough blame to go around. Yet in a largely segregated society with inequalities of resources and information, unconstrained school choice amplifies this existing stratification. The following four protections should be adopted.

» Ground choice policies in larger societal goals for schools.
This would include the valuing of diverse communities and integration by socioeconomic levels, race, special needs and first language. Most importantly, choice laws and policies should include constraints on stratification and racial imbalance and protections against discriminatory access barriers to any schools. Constitutional limits on race-conscious policies allow sufficient leeway for approaches that can increase diversity.

» All choice plans should ensure that viable and integrated choices are equally available.
The plans also should be practical and convenient for all, including the least advantaged families.

» Municipalities should assure socioeconomic and racial diversity in their housing plans and codes.
The Gautreaux reforms in Chicago and the Moving to Opportunity program in the 1990s demonstrated that housing policies designed to move families away from racial isolation and concentrated poverty can greatly benefit our youth. Harvard economics professor Lawrence Katz has studied the Moving to Opportunity program and found substantial increases in life chances, such as college attendance and earnings.

Similarly, families who moved under the Gautreaux program experienced greater achievement and attainment, along with sustained racial diversity in housing for themselves and their children.

» Ensure that laws and policies result in equal and integrated opportunities for all.
The expansion or renewal of charter schools and other forms of school choice should be contingent on taking steps to ensure access.

Finally, school leaders must become effective advocates for schools that advance equality and strengthen democracy. The informed voices of ground-level expertise have been drowned out by the megaphones of advocacy think tanks. None of us should be bystanders watching the retreat of core values and goals for the nation’s schools.
WILLIAM MATHIS, a former superintendent, is managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. E-mail: Twitter: @NEPCtweet. KEVIN WELNER is the center’s director and a professor of education at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Additional Resources
William Mathis and Kevin Welner recommend these informational resources related to their article.

»The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment” by Kevin G. Welner, Teachers College Record, April 22, 2013

» “Housing Bias and the Roots of Segregation” by Clyde Haberman, The New York Times, Sept. 18, 2016

» “Review of Separating Fact & Fiction: What You Need to Know About Charter Schools” by Gary Miron, William J. Mathis and Kevin G. Welner

» Schools Without Diversity: Education Management Organizations, Charter Schools and the Demographic Stratification of the American School System by Gary Miron, Jessica Urschel, William J. Mathis and Elana Tornquist, National Education Policy Center

» “What Betsy DeVos Didn’t Say About School Choice” by George Joseph, The Atlantic, Jan. 19, 2017