The Facts about School Choice and Segregation

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A Century Foundation researcher searching for evidence.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

ICYMI, our JPG blogger buddy Greg Forster has a new piece up at Education Next debunking a report from the Century Foundation that claims — based on mere conjecture and an ostrich-like ability to bury one’s head in the sand regarding the research — that school choice supposedly increases ethnic segregation.

The Century Foundation has published a report by Halley Potter that claims private school choice will increase ethnic segregation in schools. Although the text of the report constantly invokes words like “evidence,” “studies” and “data,” its conclusions are actually defended almost entirely by appeal to a lengthy recitation of hypothetical, ideological speculation. The report’s actual engagement with empirical research is as scanty as it is misleading. A real review of the evidence shows that private school choice has never been found to increase segregation and often seems to have provided a more integrated classroom experience.

There are a number of serious methodological challenges involved in empirical research on how education policies affect ethnic segregation. I wrote about them at some length in a report for EdChoice a while back. For example, some data don’t permit causal conclusions; some methods of comparison are unfair because they compare elementary grades to secondary grades inappropriately. Reviewing all of the empirical research on school choice last year, I found that 10 studies had been conducted that examine the relationship between school choice and ethnic segregation in some respect. Some are causal, some descriptive; all shed some light on the question. Nine of those studies found that school choice provided a more integrated classroom experience, one found no visible difference, and no empirical study had ever found that a school choice program made ethnic segregation worse.

That is the empirical evidence. Nine out of the 10 studies that have been conducted report positive findings on the actual, real-world impact of school choice programs when it comes to ethnic segregation.

The Century Foundation report mostly ignores the evidence, giving a distorted take on just two of the empirical studies on the effects of school choice on segregation. As Greg notes:

If you dig very, very deep into the report, you do eventually find a discussion of empirical studies. But this doesn’t mean the report gets much better, for Potter examines only two of the 10 studies that exist – and she has described them in a misleading way.

Looking at longitudinal studies in Milwaukee and Louisiana, she describes them in a way that will leave the impression that the results were negative for school choice: “In both cases, programs were used primarily by black students and generally did not exacerbate segregation in public schools; however, students using vouchers did not gain access to integrated private schools, and segregation in private schools actually increased.”

Now, even that misleading description would be enough to call into question the huge mountain of hypothetical, ideological speculation that occupies the overwhelming majority of Potter’s report. However, a more precise description of these two studies would look even worse for Potter, because it would look good for school choice.

The Milwaukee study found the voucher program made no visible difference to segregation, at least during the period under observation. It is the only such study ever to find no visible difference. Other studies in Milwaukee using different methods have found more encouraging results, though because of methodological restrictions, none of these studies can be considered a final word. The longitudinal study’s null finding is not as encouraging as a positive finding would have been, but the nightmare world of increasing school segregation promised by Potter’s lengthy speculations apparently did not come to pass in Milwaukee.

As usual with Greg’s work, I recommend reading the whole thing.

Sadly, the Atlantic ran an entirely uncritical piece parroting the Century Foundation’s “findings.” I’ve reached out to both the Atlantic and the Century Foundation yesterday–and again today–to share with them all the evidence that they ignored, but they have thus far continued to ignore both me and the evidence. I’ll update you if that changes.

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3 Responses to The Facts about School Choice and Segregation

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Thanks for this, Jason. If I turn blue, don’t worry, that’s just because I’m holding my breath for her reply.

    I’ll admit that I’m particularly proud of the line about the real meaning of “mixed effects.”

    Also want to note that when the post first went up, in one sentence I got “public” and “private” reversed. The error has been fixed; my apologies – and many thanks to Pat Wolf for alerting me to it!

  2. matthewladner says:

    Of all the sloppy areas of anti-parental choice research, this is surely the sloppiest.

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