by Andrew J. Coulson
Andrew J. Coulson is director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom and author of Market Education: The Unknown History. He blogs at Cato-at-Liberty.org.
In a landmark opinion issued Thursday morning, the United States Supreme Court struck down race–based student assignment programs in the Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., public–school districts. Defenders of racial–assignment policies may not realize it for years, but this ruling could be the best thing to happen to the education of minority children since the court struck down segregated schooling in 1954.
Both districts had argued that assigning students to schools based on race is necessary, at least on occasion, to ensure diverse student bodies and improve minority–student achievement. But the court's majority found that they failed to make that case — that the harm done by these programs is "undeniable," while the need for them is "unclear."
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts cited an earlier Supreme Court finding that "government action dividing people by race is inherently suspect because such classifications promote notions of racial inferiority and lead to a politics of racial hostility." He also invoked the court's seminal Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which overturned segregated schooling and "required school districts to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis."
The Seattle and Jefferson County districts, Roberts wrote, simply hadn't proved that their race–based policies were necessary to achieve their stated goals, or that they had seriously considered alternative policies.
That last point makes the court's decision monumentally important — for it draws attention to other, perhaps better, ways of promoting diversity and improving minority students' achievement.
In the immediate wake of the Brown ruling, the NAACP and others championed voluntary school–choice programs as a viable avenue toward improved integration. Many civil–rights leaders have forgotten choice in the half–century since, but it has retained the interest of scholars and activists. And their verdict is in: Choice works.
On every goal championed by advocates of race–based school assignment, private schools and parental–choice programs that ease access to them have a strong positive record — bringing residential and classroom integration and improving minority–student outcomes.
Duke University economist Thomas Nechyba has found that our conventional, district–based public–school system worsens residential segregation: By tying schools to students' addresses, it encourages the wealthy to "choose" their schools by opting to live in upscale neighborhoods. And his research strongly suggests that a school–choice program that made both private and public schools affordable to all families would greatly reduce the residential segregation that today's public–schooling arrangements have caused.
A central goal of compulsory integration polices has been to achieve racial balance at the school level. But Harvard's Civil Rights Project has observed that public schools are little more racially integrated today than they were before such policies were introduced.
And even schools with racially balanced enrollments don't necessarily have meaningful integration. It is quite common for students to self–segregate by race within schools, having comparatively little social interaction. Ohio State University sociologist James Moody has observed that "simple exposure does not promote integration," so schools that appear integrated "by the numbers" may not have meaningfully integrated hallways, lunchrooms, or even classrooms.
A decade ago, professor Jay Greene (now at the University of Arkansas) had a brilliant idea to test for truly meaningful integration: look at lunchrooms. With colleague Nicole Mellow, Greene photographed lunchrooms in public and private schools in several cities. They found that students are most likely to choose to sit with children of other races in private, not public, schools.
A recent study by Greg Forster of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation similarly 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."
So what about educational outcomes for minority students? Here again, the most significant benefits to private schooling tend to be enjoyed by African–American students, both in achievement and graduation rates:
University of Chicago economist Derek Neal has found that black students at inner–city Catholic schools are far more likely to complete high school, be accepted to college and complete college than similar students who attend public schools.
Reviewing the outcomes of school–choice programs in several cities, Harvard political scientist Paul Peterson found that academic achievement gains from private–school attendance are greatest among black students.
All this evidence was available before the court's recent ruling; most civil–rights activists have ignored it because they were committed to pursuing integration by force. Now that the Supreme Court has struck down such programs, these activists — and sympathetic policymakers — should take the court's hint and seek alternatives for advancing the education of minority children. If they do, they'll find school choice.