University of Arkansas graduate students, Anna Egalite and Jonathan Mills, have an excellent piece in Education Next on the effects of Louisiana’s voucher program on integration in schools. This is an important empirical question because the US Department of Justice has filed suit against the state’s voucher program over concerns that it undermines federal desegregation efforts.
Egalite and Mills find that when students use vouchers to switch from a traditional public school to a private school, they tend to improve the racial integration of the public school they are leaving. A transfer improves integration if the student’s departure would make that school more closely resemble the racial composition of the metropolitan area in which it is located. So, if an African-American student leaves a school that is more heavily African-American than the broader community in which it is located, his or her transfer is positive for integration. And the reverse is true. Here are their statewide results:
When Egalite and Mills focus on the 34 school districts that are under federal supervision for desegregation in Louisiana, they find that the voucher program contributes to improved integration both in the public schools from which students are transferring and the private schools that they are entering. Here are the results for those 34 districts:
The political boundaries of school districts and attendance zones appear to be an important impediment to integrating schools. If we remove those boundaries by letting students mix voluntarily, we actually see more integration. Maybe assuming that everyone is a racist and having the federal government try to force them not to be so racist is a less productive strategy than trying to remove barriers to voluntary and positive mixing of people from different backgrounds and different neighborhoods.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed their lawsuit without bothering to do this type of analysis. It will be fascinating to hear how they react to this evidence, but since they are closed right now I guess we’ll just have to wait for their response.