Commentary

Study Shows Louisiana’s Choice Program Improves Racial Integration

In the name of civil rights, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is seeking to keep low-income black students in Louisiana from attending the schools of their choice. However, new research from two PhD students at the University of Arkansas shows that Louisiana’s school choice program improves racial integration, further undermining the DOJ’s claims to the contrary.

The Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) provides school vouchers to low-income families attending low-performing public schools rated a “C,” “D,” or “F” on an A-F scale. The LSP was piloted in New Orleans in 2008, then expanded statewide in 2012. In the 2012-13 school year, the program granted vouchers to nearly 5,000 students from across Louisiana, nearly 90 percent of whom were black.

In August, the DOJ filed a motion in a decades-old federal desegregation lawsuit to enjoin the LSP from issuing any further vouchers without federal approval, arguing that the LSP negatively impacts desegregation efforts. However, the DOJ’s procedural case is weak—the federal desegregation orders are silent on transfers to private schools—and its substantive case is practically nonexistent.

The DOJ’s attempt to enjoin future vouchers serves no purpose but to prevent low-income black students from attending the schools of their choice.”

The DOJ’s brief cites two public schools where it claims desegregation efforts were harmed by the LSP. In one public school, six black students left using LSP vouchers, thereby “reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district.” The change in the racial composition of the 750+ student school was less than one percent. Likewise, the DOJ cited a public school that “lost” five white students to the LSP, which also changed the racial composition of the school by less than one percent. According to the DOJ, the net “loss” of students was only up to 13 students per school per year in just 13 of the 22 school districts under desegregation orders where students accepted vouchers.

If the DOJ’s case was already like a house of cards resting atop a rickety stool, then the new University of Arkansas study kicked out the stool. The study, “The Louisiana Scholarship Program,” by Anna J. Egalite and Jonathan N. Mills, finds that the transfers resulting from the LSP vouchers statewide “overwhelmingly improve integration in the public schools students leave (the sending schools), bringing the racial composition of the schools closer to that of the broader communities in which they are located.” Moreover, in the districts that are the focus of the DOJ litigation, the “LSP transfers improve integration in both the sending schools and the private schools participating students attend (receiving schools).”

The study uses a more intelligent definition of segregation than the DOJ, which assumes that a school is “segregated” if its racial makeup varies from the population in that district. While most people wouldn’t consider a school that is roughly two-thirds white and one-third black or vice versa to be segregated, the Department of Justice does so long as its racial composition varies from the general population of the district. The DOJ’s definition also misses real cases of de facto segregation. Under their odd definition, if there were two neighboring districts, one of which was 98 percent black and the other 98 percent white, the DOJ would consider their schools perfectly “integrated” so long as their racial composition matched their respective districts. Indeed, if six black students attempted to leave a school that was 80 percent black in a district that was 90 percent black, that would likely raise the DOJ’s ire for increasing “segregation.”

By contrast, the University of Arkansas researchers adopted a more rational definition of segregation that compares a school’s racial composition to the larger metropolitan area using the U.S. Census Bureau’s “core based statistical area” (CBSA). As the study explains, the CBSA is “the most appropriate benchmark for the broader community as it approximates the geographical area from which a school could reasonably be expected to draw students from in the absence of legal or political boundaries.” Moreover, the study also considers the LSP’s impact on student attendance at racially homogenous schools, defined in the study as schools “having 90 percent of students belonging to the same race or ethnicity.”

The study found that “the overwhelming majority (83 percent) [of LSP transfers] have positive impacts on the racial integration of the student’s sending school.” When considering only the districts that are under federal desegregation orders, 74 percent of the transfers improved integration at the sending school. This means that the two cases cited in the DOJ brief were far from representative. Indeed, the study concludes that “it would appear that the voucher program is also beneficial for school integration in the very districts that are the subject of the Department of Justice litigation.”

The study also examined whether voucher recipients are transferring to more or less integrated schools. Statewide, the study found that the receiving schools were no more or less integrated, on average, than the public schools that the voucher recipients were leaving. However, in the school districts under desegregation orders, 56 percent of the voucher recipients transferred to more racially integrated schools.

Moreover, the receiving schools were “half as likely as public schools to be identified as racially homogeneous” statewide. Only 17 percent of private schools with LSP enrollees were racially homogenous compared to 34 percent of the public schools that they previously attended.

The study’s findings align with the growing research literature concerning the impact of school choice on segregation. Seven of the eight previous studies using similar definitions of segregation found that, on average, students move from more segregated to less segregated schools as a result of school choice. The last study found no net effect while none of the studies found a negative impact.

The evidence makes clear that the DOJ’s attempt to enjoin future vouchers would actually produce the opposite of its intended effect. It serves no purpose but to prevent low-income black students from attending the schools of their choice, forcing them to remain instead in the underperforming schools to which they were assigned. If DOJ officials truly care about racial integration, then they should heed the calls from the Black Alliance for Educational Options, Louisiana Governor Bobby JindalSenator Lamar AlexanderHouse Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Washington Post and others to withdraw the lawsuit altogether.

Jason Bedrick is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. He is the author of “Cracking the Books: How Well Do State Education Departments Report Public School Spending?