School vouchers: a valuable tool for desegregation

August 22, 2014 | By RALPH KASARDA

court’s ruling this week that North Carolina’s school voucher program is unconstitutional is unfortunate, given that the most likely beneficiaries of the program are disadvantaged minority students.  The program aims to provide as much as $4,200 annually for low-income families trying to get their children out of failing public schools and into private schools.

Many who are opposed to school voucher programs don’t seem to realize that vouchers can contribute to desegregation and free low-income students trapped in poor performing schools.  In her book Place Not Race, law professor and civil rights activist Sheryll Cashin writes that 80% of black students and 74% of Latino students nationwide attend majority non-white schools.  Meanwhile, most white students attend a school that is 77% white.  Additionally, 43% of black and Latino students attend schools where more than 80% of students were poor.  Only 4% of white students went to a school defined by poverty.

Patrick Gibbons helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.  He writes that in North Carolina

“failing schools” were the closest school to 48 percent of all black students in the state, while high-poverty schools were the closest to 68 percent. These rates were double the statewide average for all students.

Professor Cashin notes that racially segregated, high-poverty schools often have less experienced and less qualified teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, less successful peer groups, inadequate facilities and learning materials, and what she describes as an “oppositional culture that tends to denigrate learning.”  Given these terrible circumstances, it is not surprising that before the court’s ruling in North Carolina more than 5,500 families there had applied for vouchers.  In Gibbons’ experience, the voucher plan likely would send many black students to largely white private schools – and thus reduce school segregation.

According to Professor Cashin, few “professional parents of color,” including herself, send their students to a “segregated, majority-black public school.”  Some win admissions lotteries, and send their children to out-of-district public schools or a high-performing charter school.  Some send their children to private schools, while others simply move.  In other words, parents of all races try to avoid a poor-performing high-poverty school, but that choice is dependent on whether parents have the means to do so.

The North Carolina school voucher program is an attempt to provide low-income children with an equal opportunity to attend a better performing school.  Fortunately, the North Carolina Attorney General’s office has indicated that it will appeal the adverse decision.