Just as the Supreme Court prepares to rule on the constitutionality of school vouchers, President Bush has set aside in his budget proposals $50 million for trial school choice programs. Bush has called for giving parents "expanded school choice options, including the option of a private school." It's the civil rights issue of our time! he might have added.
Bush refers to "expanding" school choice with good reason. For decades Americans have had school choice—provided they've got the money to pick their place of residence. And for decades the education gap between blacks and whites has remained intact, despite a host of compensatory education reforms. Nor—and here is the civil rights issue—is this gap likely to close if most whites have residential choice and most blacks do not.
African Americans are the losers in this arrangement. Holding less equity and facing discrimination in the housing market, blacks choose from a limited set of housing options. As a consequence, their children attend the worst public schools. The results are clear. Despite the efforts of the civil rights movement, public schools today remain just as segregated as they were in the 1950s.
Since blacks have the least amount of choice among public schools, they benefit the most when choice is expanded. In multiyear evaluations of private voucher programs in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio, we and our colleagues found that African American students, when given the choice of a private school, scored significantly higher on standardized tests than comparable students remaining in public school.
These test score gains were accomplished at religious and other private schools that had little more than half the funds available to their public school counterparts. Nevertheless, parents reported much higher levels of school satisfaction. Private school parents were more likely to report that their children were in smaller schools, smaller classes, and an educational-friendly environment. Their children had more homework and the schools were more likely to communicate with the family. Nor were the private schools any more segregated than the public ones.
So what should Congress do with the Bush administration proposal? Assuming the Supreme Court finds vouchers constitutional, Congress should put bipartisan bickering aside and launch a demonstration program that can fully explore the potential of choice programs. Demonstration programs should be initiated in one or more cities where African American students are concentrated in sizable numbers and private schools are not being fully utilized. Congress should make sure voucher programs receive monies comparable to what public schools receive. In this way, founders of new schools, both secular and religious, will be motivated to participate in the demonstration and bring new ideas and new energy into urban education. All the schools should be held accountable for results within a reasonable period of time.
In short, it's time to take the American commitment to equal educational opportunity seriously. Precisely because African Americans suffer most in today's real estate–driven system of school choice, they stand to benefit the most from school vouchers.