School Choice and Racial Balance
by Paul Peterson
July 24, 2007
Schools that admit students on the basis of race run afoul of the Constitution, wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the recent Supreme Court case, Parents v. Seattle. Over-subscribed schools may not use race as a tie-breaker when deciding which students to admit.
But according to Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his decisive concurring opinion, racial segregation remains such a serious public issue that explicit race criteria might be used, if all other means for achieving racial balance have been explored. Seattle's error was not to have first tried other, less draconian options for achieving diversity.
Both views are correct. And the solution is simple: To achieve racial balance, let parents choose their school, and let oversubscribed schools admit students by lot. If parents of all races and ethnicities seek admission to a particular school at the same rate, then a lottery will ensure that the school's social mix reflects that of the school district, the very goal Seattle said it tried to achieve.
It will be objected: Won't white parents apply to good schools at a higher rate than minority parents will? Won't some schools have larger concentrations of white students, leaving minorities packed into schools elsewhere?
Such questions imply that minority parents are not equally capable of figuring out what's best for their child. Yet, when parents can choose and schools use a lottery, minority parents are quite willing to look for options.
In many urban areas, parents are now being given the choice of attending one of the country's nearly 4,000 charter schools -- publicly funded schools operated by nonprofit or for-profit organizations. Most are so popular they are over-subscribed and must turn some students away. They're especially attractive in big cities, because they typically provide smaller, safer and friendlier educational environments. To comply with state laws and regulations as well as to live up to their own egalitarian ideals, charters usually rely upon a lottery to pick which students to admit (unless they are siblings of a student already at the school).
Charter schools serve a higher percentage of minorities and disadvantaged students than traditional public schools. According to a Department of Education survey, 33% of charter school students are African-American, as compared to 18% in traditional public schools. For Hispanics, the proportions in the two sectors are 15% and 13%, respectively. Nor are the well-to-do crowding out the economically disadvantaged: 54% of charter-school students are income eligible for the subsidized lunch program, as compared to 46% of those in public school.
But what if parents prefer to send their child to a school that is racially unbalanced? Is the evidence clear that desegregated schools are so educationally desirable they should be forced on families, even if they choose otherwise? It isn't. Scholarly studies -- both good and bad -- have produced so many conflicting findings that nothing is known with any certainty about the impact of attending a desegregated school.
Overall, the evidence points in two directions. On the one side, abolition of de jure segregation not only changed the country's racial climate, but African-American student performance in the South rose markedly, especially during the Reagan years when schools were desegregating amid a public rhetoric that stressed personal self-reliance. But, on the other side, significant school desegregation within big cities since 1970, along the lines that Seattle carried out, has not prevented the recent slide in minority adolescents' test scores. Perhaps this was because affirmative-action policies created a sense of entitlement and a powerful entertainment industry reinforced an anti-education peer-group culture.
Justice Kennedy is correct in saying that school desegregation is a goal still worth pursuing. Chief Justice Roberts is correct in saying that true equality demands race-blind policies. But the route to racial balance is better pursued by parental choice and fair school policies than by granting entitlements to one group over another.