In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school assignments based on race are unconstitutional. The ruling has sparked a firestorm among people who believe that this change in precedent could create de facto segregation in public schools. There’s a much better way to solve the problem of institutional racism in U.S. education than through the use of government-issued mandates. A system of competitive school choice gives people of every background the chance to provide their children with the best educations possible. Why not allow parents the choice to send their children to schools where they would do well? If schools had to compete to attract students, a greater diversity of race, ideology, and socio-economic background would occur naturally, without bogging down both schools and students in burdensome, unworkable regulations.
The federal government has employed several methods in its attempts to erase the legacy of de jure segregation — all of which have had mixed results. From school busing to increased funding for select school districts, these efforts to improve schools for all children have not proven to be cure-alls. The changes have, at times, produced feelings of anger and bitterness. Judges and government officials developed plans for where to send children to school without understanding individual school dynamics, effectively rejecting input from parents who want a say in where to send their children. Communities with the potential for harmony become, instead, resentful — and increasingly view attempts to achieve diversity in a bad light.
School choice would improve the dynamics necessary to create educational diversity. Everyone wants their children to receive good educations. No matter their background or race, parents want their children to attend schools with high-quality teachers and curriculum. One excellent example of this phenomenon is Metro High School in Saint Louis. The school’s academic reputation and success attract the interest of parents from a wide variety of backgrounds. Diversity is not a problem there, with an approximate 50-50 split of black and white students. Because parents of all backgrounds want their children to attend, there is no need to enforce diversity in cases like this.
Some critics are afraid that school choice would exacerbate segregation in schools. They believe that vouchers would be used primarily by white families who would relocate their children to better schools with a white-majority student body, leaving behind lesser-quality schools with a black-majority student body — resulting in de facto segregation. Others fear that vouchers would end up leaving behind poor black children whose parents don’t care enough about their children’s educations to use the vouchers they’re given, and switch their children to better schools. This wouldn’t be the case, though, because all people — not just the privileged — would have the ability to decide which schools to patronize with their educational vouchers or tax credits. Schools that see their enrollment drop drastically would be forced to implement equally drastic reforms in order to stay in business. They’d either improve their educational methods or somebody else would take over the school and reform it for them, in an effort to attract students. This would better serve children who are “left behind” in today’s system.
If parents are able to remove their kids from schools that have failed, those schools will have an incentive to educate children with quality and efficiency — lip service and bureaucracy would no longer suffice. In addition, none of this would depend on student body demographics. The views that all people share about educational quality would lead to a natural emergence of real diversity — because everybody, regardless of race, creed, or socioeconomic status, wants their children’s schools to work.
Working toward greater diversity in schools is an admirable goal, but the current system has brought more problems than solutions. Through school choice, reinforced with vouchers or tuition tax credits, real diversity can follow from the commonalities we all share. Parents want their children to have access to the best schools possible — no matter who else attends them.
Maurice Harris is an intern at the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri-based think tank. He is currently studying political science and history at Knox College.