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Hartford Courant


Use Vouchers For Integration

November 30, 2003

By Jay P. Greene

The major obstacle to improving racial integration in Hartford’s public schools isn’t that students are separated by race within the city; it’s that there just aren’t enough white students in the city to provide an integrated experience for its overwhelmingly minority student population. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2001-02, only 1,291 of the 22,264 students in Hartford, or 6 percent, were non-Hispanic whites. Even if every school in Hartford had a perfectly representative racial distribution, every school in the city would still have a 94 percent minority population - horribly segregated.

The only way to improve racial integration in Hartford’s schools is to mix minority students from the city with white students who live in suburban districts. Some nearby districts are almost as overwhelmingly white as the city’s schools are black and Hispanic. In Wethersfield, for example, 85 percent of students are white. In the entire Hartford metropolitan area, 77 percent of the population is white. Clearly there are sufficient numbers of white and minority students in the Hartford area, sometimes just a few miles apart, to produce integrated schools. They’re just prevented from attending school together by invisible school district boundaries.

How can we get students to cross these political boundaries and produce racially integrated schools? We could try to coerce integration by busing students across school district lines, but that path has little appeal. White, black and Hispanic families alike loathe being forced to send their children to distant schools. They believe that local schools serving local students are accountable to the local community, and they resent the inevitable loss of control and influence that comes with busing.

They also fear how academic standards, safety and discipline might be affected by the involuntary mixing of students in schools - to put it bluntly, they don’t trust public schools to handle integration effectively.

We could, as Connecticut is doing, try to entice white students into the city by offering public magnet schools that can draw students from across district lines. But again, parents don’t fully trust public schools to manage integration well. Parents have already been burned by busing and declining academic and disciplinary standards in city schools and will be reluctant to volunteer for this well-intentioned pilot. The very limited participation in interdistrict programs in cities like St. Louis suggests that interdistrict public school choice may be an improvement on rigid district boundaries but hardly makes a dent in segregation.

It would be better to allow parents to use vouchers to choose among private schools anywhere in the Hartford area. Parents have much greater confidence in the academic and disciplinary standards in private schools. Private schools have established track records and reputations that can reassure parents. And the religious and other transcendent missions found in private schools may entice parents to send their children into racially mixed settings for a higher purpose.

The most serious barrier facing private schools today in offering a racially mixed experience is that minority students are less likely to have the resources to attend. But vouchers would reduce that barrier by financially empowering parents to choose their school regardless of money.

In a national study of the racial composition of 12th-grade classrooms, I found that private school classrooms were more likely to be racially mixed than were public school classrooms. Public school integration suffered because school districts and attendance zones tend to be either massively white or massively minority, but private schools are not constrained by political boundaries.

Where vouchers have been offered, they have helped produce better-integrated schools. In the Cleveland metropolitan area, for example, 61 percent of public school students attended racially segregated schools, compared to 50 percent of students in Cleveland’s voucher program. In Milwaukee, researchers found that 58 percent of public elementary school students attended racially segregated schools, compared to 38 percent of students at Catholic elementary schools participating in that city’s voucher program. Neither of these voucher programs have produced ideal integration, but they have made big steps in the right direction.

Some supporters of school integration perceive vouchers as an instrument of right-wingers. It is true that for a brief period segregationists seized upon vouchers as part of a desperate attempt to avoid integration. But segregationists didn’t invent school vouchers - in fact, among the earliest champions of vouchers were two of the great heroes of political equality and social progress: Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill. Opposing vouchers because they were once briefly supported by segregationists is like opposing highways because Hitler built the autobahn.

Policies should be judged by their effects, not their pedigrees. Vouchers offer real hope for improved integration, while old approaches continue to fail. If the people of Hartford want integration to happen, they need to consider vouchers.

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