Private schools, choice, and racial exclusion

Travis Pillow

The population of students attending private schools has gotten whiter nationwide, even as the proportion of Black and Hispanic students in public schools has grown, according to a new report. But the report overlooks some compelling evidence that private school choice programs, particularly those aimed at low-income families, could mitigate the imbalance by giving more minority parents access to private schools they couldn’t otherwise afford.

Florida, for example, appears to buck the trend. Between 1998 and 2012, its private schools became less predominantly white, according to an analysis of federal enrollment data release this week by the Southern Education Foundation. The racial balance of Florida’s private schools improved by 4.4 percentage points, the second-best in the nation.

It may be no coincidence that in 2001, Florida began offering tax credit scholarships, which soon became the largest private school choice program in the nation, and, by the end of the 2011-12 school year, helped make private-school education available to more than 40,248 low-income children. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarships). This year, the program serves more than 78,000 students, 75 percent of them non-white.

Only one other state — Wisconsin, which pioneered school vouchers — improved the racial balance of its private schools more quickly.

A new report shows black and Hispanic students remain under-represented in private schools across the country.

A new report by the Southern Education Foundation shows black and Hispanic students remain under-represented in private schools across the country.

The foundation’s report, however, sounds an alarm about the proliferation of voucher and scholarship programs. Private schools, it notes, remain “disproportionately white, and often extremely segregated and exclusionary especially in the Southern states.” Enrollment surged in the Deep South after Brown v. Board of Education, as states looked for creative ways to thwart integration. For that reason, the report argues, new efforts to subsidize private school tuition deserve extra scrutiny.

A closer look at the data in the report reveals the relationship between private school choice and private school segregation is far from clear-cut. A few states stand out.

  • Is it any accident that the two states where the racial balance of private schools improved the fastest are Florida, where only low-income and special needs students could qualify for private school choice programs, and Wisconsin, where school choice icon Howard Fuller has pushed conservative lawmakers to limit its growing voucher program to disadvantaged students?
  • On the other hand, Arizona has the highest levels of private school choice participation of any state in the country. And yet, Hispanic students there were woefully under-represented in private schools, and their 21.5 percent gap with white students was the fifth-widest in the country.
  • Louisiana expanded its voucher program statewide during the 2012-13 school year, after the data in the report was collected. A study recently found the vouchers are improving racial integration in the school system as a whole. But in 2011-12, Louisiana had the nation’s third-worst under-representation of black children in private schools. This history of segregation may help explain why the state felt it was necessary to impose the sometimes-maligned requirement that private school waive admissions rules if they want to accept voucher students.

The report has its limitations. For one thing, while it looks at racial isolation in schools, the data on over- and under-representation don’t necessarily show whether schools are segregated. They just show whether fewer black or Hispanic students attend private schools in general. (The Washington Post ran a nuanced article that explores some of these issues.)

It’s worth noting that school choice programs were beginning to take root and grow during the period covered by the report. But private schools across the country saw enrollment decline, especially after the Great Recession pushed tuition out of reach for many middle- and working-class families.

The report suggests school choice programs could be more transparent about which students are participating. In Florida, black students account for a disproportionate share of tax credit scholarship recipients, suggesting the program isn’t simply subsidizing racial exclusion — quite the contrary.

But if programs are open to all students, not just students who were previously shut out of private education, and children from historically disadvantaged groups aren’t taking advantage of them, perhaps the public has a right to know.

Do the worst-offending states offer school choice? (Patrick Gibbons compiled this section).

With a few notable exceptions, worst-offending states highlighted by the Southern Education Foundation tended to lack private school choice programs aimed at low-income students during the period it covered, between 1998 and 2012. But many enacted private school choice programs in recent years — some aimed at disadvantaged children, and others with broader eligibility.

Ten states with largest disparities between whites and blacks attending private schools

  • Mississippi offers three private school choice programs for children with special needs. These programs launched in 2012, 2013, and 2015, after the data in the report was collected.
  • South Carolina offers a special needs voucher and refundable tax credit for parents of special needs students. These programs began in 2013 and 2015, respectively.
  • Louisiana‘s pilot voucher program for low-income students wasn’t expanded statewide until the 2012-13 school year, after the timeline covered by the foundation’s report.
  • Georgia offers a special needs voucher (2007) and tax credit scholarship (2008). Neither program is limited to low-income students.
  • Delaware offers no private school choice program.
  • Alabama has a relatively new tax-credit scholarship program for low- to middle-income students. Alabama also offers a refundable tuition tax credit to help lower the cost of private education. Both programs began in 2013.
  • North Carolina enacted a voucher program for low-income students in 2013 but it sat in limbo until 2015 due to litigation. The state also offers a voucher for children with disabilities.
  • Arkansas’ voucher program for children with special needs passed in 2015 and will enroll students beginning this fall.
  • Maryland has no private school choice program, though a voucher program passed the legislature this week.
  • Michigan’s constitution explicitly prohibits private school choice programs.

Ten states with largest disparity between whites and Hispanics attending private schools 

  • California has no private choice program.
  • Nevada enacted two private school choice programs in 2015, but they are now in limbo due to litigation.
  • Texas has no private choice program.
  • New Mexico has no private choice program.
  • Arizona offered three private school choice programs, one of which focuses on low- to moderate-income students, during the period covered by the report.
  • Colorado has no private choice program
  • Oregon has no private choice program
  • Washington has no private choice program
  • Rhode Island offers a small tax credit program with a focus on low-income students. The program was launched in 2007.
  • Connecticut has no private choice program

Top ten states where private school enrollment became whiter

  • Nevada enacted two private school choice programs in 2015. The tax credit scholarship program issued just over 500 scholarships to low- to middle-income students in 2015-16. No scholarships have been awarded from the education savings accounts program due to pending litigation.
  • New Jersey has no private choice program
  • Delaware has no private choice program
  • Rhode Island offers a small tax credit program with a focus on low-income students. The program was launched in 2007.
  • Michigan’s constitution explicitly prohibits private school choice.
  • New York has no private school choice program
  • Kansas offers a tax credit scholarship for low-income students. The program didn’t begin until 2015.
  • Minnesota has no voucher or tax credit scholarship program, but offers a state income-tax deduction for expenses at private schools. The state also allows for a refundable education tax-credit for non-tuition educational expenses. Neither program helps make private school tuition affordable for low-income students.
  • Nebraska has no private school choice program
  • Illinois has no voucher or tax credit scholarship but offers a small tax credit for education expenses (public or private school). With a maximum credit of just $500, it has little impact helping low-income families afford private schools.

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