Commentary

Counting by Race

Can public schools accept or reject students based on their race? Last week, the Supreme Court took up that question in a pair of school integration cases from Seattle and Louisville. In each case, students were denied admission to their chosen public schools because they were not the right color to increase racial balance.

Supporters of race-based student assignment, from the NAACP to MTV, believe it promotes socially and educationally valuable interaction among white and minority students. In reality, these policies have been about as effective at producing meaningful integration and educational excellence as arranged marriages are at manufacturing true love.

Even in their most basic goal of achieving racial balance in school-level enrollment, forced integration policies have fallen short. Harvard’s Civil Rights Project has observed that public schools are little more racially integrated today than they were before such policies were introduced, with “more than 70% of the nation’s black students now attend[ing] predominantly minority schools.”

The historical attempt to force racial balance through busing not only failed to integrate schools, it dramatically increased residential segregation by accelerating the shift of the predominantly white middle class to the suburbs. (Middle-class blacks fled, too, but were fewer in number.)

Denying students their chosen public school drives still more families out of urban districts. Court documents show that in 2001 alone, 30 students left the Seattle Public School District because they ran afoul of the racial assignment policy. Many of these families will likely move to suburban districts, and since most of the students rebuffed under this policy are white, that will further aggravate residential segregation.

It is not even clear that racial balance at the school level is the right goal, since it does not guarantee meaningful integration. Students commonly sort themselves into cliques along racial or ethnic lines, having relatively little interaction with those outside their own group.

Sociologists such as James Moody of Ohio State University have demonstrated that “simple exposure does not promote integration.” So schools that seem “integrated” on paper do not always have meaningfully integrated hallways, lunchrooms, or even classrooms.

There is a better way: providing a system of financial assistance so that all families have access to the public or private schools of their choice. A recent study by Greg Forster of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation finds that “private schools are actually less segregated than public schools when examined at the classroom level; and that private schools participating in voucher programs…are much less segregated than public schools.”

A study by Duke University economist Thomas Nechyba also finds that such programs would significantly reduce residential income segregation — which would help to undo the perverse residential segregation effects caused by compulsory integration policies.

What’s more, integration in the private sector tends to be more meaningful. A multi-city study of school lunchrooms by Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas found that children are more likely to choose to sit with peers of different races in private schools than in public ones. In other words, private school students are less likely to have their friendships broken up along racial lines than are public school students.

Finally, the most significant educational benefits to private schooling tend to be enjoyed by African American students, both in achievement and graduation rates. Economist Derek Neal has found that African American students attending urban Catholic schools are vastly more likely to complete high school, be accepted to college, and complete college than similar students who attend public schools. And a review by Harvard University researcher Paul Peterson and others finds that the academic achievement gains to students attending private schools under voucher programs are greatest among black students.

More than 150 years ago, a young graduate of the New York African Free School lamented his career options, writing: “Am I arrived at the end of my education, just on the eve of setting out into the world, of commencing some honest pursuit, by which to earn a comfortable subsistence? What are my prospects?…Shall I be a mechanic? No one will employ me; white boys won’t work with me. Shall I be a merchant? No one will have me in his office; white clerks won’t associate with me. Drudgery and servitude, then are my prospective portion.”

Today, any high school graduate able to write with such grace would be fought over by both colleges and employers. If America is to be a just society, we must ensure that every child has the opportunity to become so well educated. We can do that by giving all families a free choice of school, and by obliging all schools to compete for the privilege of serving them.

We will never solve our cultural and educational problems simply by having bureaucrats move black and white schoolchildren around like pawns on a chessboard.

Andrew J. Coulson is Director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.