Pounding the Table, Not the Facts, on School Choice

There’s an old legal proverb about how to win a court case: “If the law is on your side, pound the law. If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If neither is on your side, pound the table.”

In this factually-challenged attack on school choice, two lawyers at the UNC Center for Civil Rights do a great deal of table pounding.
Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, the lawyers charge that school choice programs don’t work and that they increase racial segregation. For example, they claim:

…in states with [school choice] programs, student achievement at the private schools is no better, and often worse, than in the public schools. In fact, in Milwaukee and Cleveland, whose voucher programs are the country’s longest running, traditional public school students outperform voucher students on available proficiency measures.

Even read in the most charitable light, the lawyers misleadingly compare apples and orangutangs. Participants in school choice programs are generally more disadvantaged than the general population, so it is absurd to compare their average performance against the general population, which includes all the students in wealthy “public” school districts (where low-income parents have been arrested for trying to enroll their kids). Government school advocates rightly object when someone compares average private school performance to average government school performance. The private schools outperform government schools on average, but because both parents and the private schools select each other, the comparison breaks down. The same is true here.

A meaningful comparison requires a randomized-controlled trial, which is the gold standard of social science research because the process of randomization allows researchers to compare like against like and to isolate the effect of the “treatment” (in this case, the offer of a school choice scholarship). Fortunately, there have been 12 such studies addressing this very question from highly-respected institutions like Harvard University and the Brookings Institution. Eleven found that school choice programs lead to positive student outcomes, including higher academic performance and higher rates of high school graduation and college matriculation. One study found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative impact.

These studies include evaluations of the Milwaukee and Cleveland school voucher programs that the lawyers falsely claimed were underperforming vis-a-vis government schools. In fact, a longitudinal study of the Milwaukee program found that it increased academic performance, graduation rates, and college enrollment (and did so at about half the cost per pupil):

“Students enrolled in the Milwaukee voucher program are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college than their public school counterparts, boast significantly improved reading scores, represent a more diverse cross-section of the city, and are improving the results of traditional public school students,” said the study’s press release.

“Among the new findings are that students enrolled in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP)—the nation’s oldest private school choice program currently in operation—not only graduate from high school on time by seven percentage points more than students enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), but they are also more likely to enroll in a four-year college and persist in college.”

In other words, the lawyers’ assertion that the achievement of school choice students is “is no better, and often worse” is flat out false. It’s not possible to state with any certainty where they’re getting their faulty information (quite possibly the usual suspects), but President Obama made similarly false claims in a recent TV interview, prompting prominent researchers including of Paul E. Peterson of Harvard University and Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas to correct the record:

The faulty empirical claims about the effectiveness of school choice programs were bad enough, but the lawyers’ greater offense was cynically raising the specter of racial segregation:

We also know the historical links between racism and private schools. In 1964, 83 private schools enrolled approximately 9,500 students in N.C. But from 1968 to 1972 – when advocates and the federal government began to enforce meaningful school desegregation – the state jumped from 174 private schools and 18,000 students, to 263 schools and over 50,000 students. Surging enrollment in non-public schools was often concentrated in areas with high concentrations of African-American students , and the segregative legacy of these private schools and academies continues to this day:

Bertie County is 62 percent African American. Lawrence Academy was founded in Bertie County in 1968. Its student body is 98 percent white.

Halifax County is 53 percent African-American. Halifax Academy and Hobgood Academy were both founded in 1969. Halifax Academy is 98 percent white; Hobgood Academy is 95 percent white.

Hertford County is over 60 percent African-American. Ridgecroft School, founded in 1968, is 97 percent white.

Northampton County is 58 percent African-American, but Northeast Academy, established in 1966, is 99 percent white.

First, it’s absurd to link the history of segregation solely to private schools when the public schools were segregated for over a century. This is especially absurd since inter-district segregation is now higher among government schools than 50 years ago.

Second, these anecdotes tell us absolutely nothing without context. It’s possible that these schools are illegally discriminating on the basis of race, but it’s also possible that this merely reflects the fact that, under the status quo, wealthier whites are better able to afford private school than less wealthy blacks, which is exactly the inequity that NC’s school voucher program seeks to address.

It’s telling that the lawyers refrained from citing any of the empirical evidence on the matter:

Eight empirical studies have examined school choice and racial segregation in schools. Of these, seven find that school choice moves students from more segregated schools into less segregated schools. One finds no net effect on segregation from school choice. No empirical study has found that choice increases racial segregation.

Additionally, a recent study from the Louisiana Department of Education also found that the state’s school voucher program improves racial integration. More than 85 percent of the scholarship recipients in Louisiana are black. Likewise, school choice programs in other states disproportionately benefit minority students, including 81 percent of scholarship students in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and 78 percent in Florida.

The lawyers concluded that it is “a twisted irony that the leaders of the voucher movement claim a racial justice rationale for their scheme.” In fact, the twisted irony is that an organization with the words “civil rights” in their title would work so hard to deprive minorities of the ability to choose the schools that work best for their own kids. They’re joined by other defenders of the government school monopoly who are suing to block North Carolina’s nascent school choice program. If these self-proclaimed “civil rights” lawyers really cared about racial justice, they would stop standing in the school house door.

-Jason Bedrick

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