Analysis

Democrats argue school choice is driving segregation, but what does the data say?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Cardinal Ritter High School has one of the highest percentages of students paying tuition with state-funded vouchers in Indiana.

Two Democrats running for statewide office in Indiana say school choice bears some of the responsibility for segregated schools in the state but a deeper look at the details raises questions about whether that’s fair.

The issue came up on Monday when Chalkbeat, which has been writing a series of stories on school segregation in Indianapolis, asked the Democratic candidates for governor, John Gregg, and for state superintendent, Glenda Ritz, what role the state should play in ensuring schools are racially and socioeconomically balanced.

(By the way, Chalkbeat is co-sponsoring a community conversation about school integration on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Central Library. You should come.)

Here’s what reporter Shaina Cavazos wrote about her exchange with Gregg:

Gregg said he didn’t know that resegregation had become an issue. He partially blamed the legislature’s promotion of school choice — which includes taxpayer-funded vouchers for private school tuition, charter schools and parents’ ability to choose schools outside their home districts — for some of the problem.

“I’m going to check into that because I was not aware of that,” he said. “I do imagine part of it comes because the legislature allows the choice.”

Ritz also pointed to school choice as a problem, especially the state voucher program.

But is that fair?

As a reminder, school integration first exploded as an issue in 1954 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that outlawed “separate but equal” as a policy for school enrollment. In Indianapolis, most of the effects of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling were felt from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Resegregation has been an issue here at least since the late 1980s, with whiter and wealthier families moving further out into the suburbs. That has created a growing new divide between affluent suburban schools and city schools that now largely serve poor, minority students.

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READ MORE: Find the entire series here.

The first charter schools and voucher laws in the country didn’t come along until the early 1990s, well after the problems of school resegregation became apparent. In Indianapolis, courts approved a phase-out of busing for racial balance beginning in 1999. The state didn’t pass a law creating charter schools until 2001 and the law creating vouchers wasn’t passed until 2011.

So at a minimum, it’s hard to argue that school choice created the problem of resegregation.

There is evidence that school choice programs can accelerate segregation in schools, such as in this recent report on segregated school districts in Michigan. But is it happening in Indiana?

In her Monday remarks, Ritz was specifically critical of the state’s private school voucher program as a driver of school segregation, suggesting her proposal to pause the expansion of vouchers could help schools become less segregated.

Looking at Ritz’s own report on the Indiana voucher program from May, however, there is scant evidence that vouchers are accelerating segregation.

If that were true, you might expect to see, for example, the program being used mostly by whiter and wealthier families to transfer from integrated public schools to segregated private schools.

But the students who use vouchers are less white than the state as a whole. About 71 percent of Indiana students are white. About 60 percent of those using vouchers last year were white. And most of the kids who use vouchers are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

It is true that the voucher program has been expanded in recent years by the legislature to include more middle class families with higher incomes, and that the percentage of students in the program who are white and middle class has grown, but the numbers don’t suggest vouchers accelerate a surge of white or middle class kids out of public schools.

In fact, school choice advocates argue just the opposite: that vouchers might actually help integrate mostly white private schools by helping more poor and minority kids to enroll.

Indiana’s data certainly doesn’t seem to show white students using vouchers to flee public schools in large numbers.

Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, was 20.9 percent white in 2011-12, the year the voucher program began. About 640 IPS students transferred using vouchers that year. In 2013-14, the last year for which data is available, the district was practically unchanged at 20.4 percent white even after more than 2,650 IPS students used vouchers to attend private schools.

But look at the effect vouchers have had on two local private schools that accepted among the largest numbers of students using the program — Ritter and Cathedral Catholic high schools.

In the first year of the voucher program in 2011, Ritter enrolled 61 voucher students and the school was 61 percent white. But Ritter was 54 percent white in 2013-14, when it enrolled 211 voucher students. Voucher students by then made up about a third of the school’s enrollment.

In other words, Ritter has become more integrated as it added more voucher students.

Cathedral is a much less diverse school than Ritter, but it also is showing a move toward more integration as it adds more voucher students. In 2011, Cathedral enrolled 18 voucher students and the school was 83 percent white. Cathedral was down to 80 percent white by 2013-14, when it enrolled 126 voucher students.

As part of the series, we wrote about one private school, The Oaks Academy, which intentionally uses vouchers to boost its strategy of building an enrollment that is racially and economically balanced by design.

We also wrote about how another form of school choice — charter schools — have become some of the most segregated schools in the city.

So the role  school choice plays in school segregation is still open for debate. The data so far seems to suggest the voucher program does not have a significant impact on racial balance, at least in IPS, but does seem to help some private schools move toward more integrated enrollment. The impact of charter schools on racial segregation is an area that may need some more review.

Indianapolis schools divided

Admissions changes are diversifying Indianapolis Public Schools most popular magnets. Now, the district may go further.

PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
The magnet priority admission boundaries adopted by Indianapolis Public Schools in 2016.

New rules designed to make Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought after schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color appear to be working. But with admissions still skewed, the administration is proposing going even further.

Across IPS, just one in five students are white and nearly 70 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance. But at three of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, white students fill most of the seats and the vast majority of students come from middle class or affluent families.

At a board meeting last month, district staff highlighted School 60 (the Butler University lab school), School 84 and School 2 (both Center for Inquiry schools) as three schools where seats fill up fast and enrollment doesn’t reflect the demographics of the district.

In a bid to make those schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color, the board changed the admissions rules for magnets last fall. They shrank the boundaries that give priority to families who live near the schools, which is important because the three most popular schools drew from areas with more white, affluent families. And they changed the timeline for magnet admission to allow families to apply later.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to re-integrate,” former-board member Gayle Cosby said at the time. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

The changes appear to have opened Schools 2, 84 and 60 to more students of color, according to data from the first admission cycle under the new rules. Next year, 32 percent of kindergarteners are expected to be children of color. That’s more than double last year, when just 14 percent of kindergarteners were not white.

But those demographics don’t come close to matching the district, where 72 percent of kindergarteners are children of color.

IPS director of enrollment and options Patrick Herrel said the goal should be for admissions at the most popular magnet schools to reflect district demographics.

“All kids, regardless of background, (should) have an equal chance of accessing some of our highest quality schools,” he said. “We moved in the right direction, but we are absolutely not there yet.”

The changes also aim to make the schools more economically diverse, but the data on income diversity among kindergarteners won’t be available until students complete enrollment and income verification paperwork, according to an IPS official.

District staff say IPS could do more. Last month, they presented the board with a plan to reserve more seats for students who apply late in the cycle. IPS data shows that students who apply later in the spring are more likely to come from low-income families and to be children of color.  

The move would double down on a change made last year, when the district switched from a single admissions lottery in January to three lotteries. Last year, 70 percent of seats were available in the January lottery, but 30 percent were held for lotteries in March and April. The new proposal calls for going further by reserving half the seats at magnet schools for the March and April lotteries.

When the board voted on the change to admissions rules last fall, there was strong momentum behind the move to change magnet lottery rules, following a Chalkbeat and IndyStar series on segregation in schools that found the district’s most popular programs primarily served privileged students. But there was also resistance from some parents, many of whom came from neighborhoods that lost their edge in gaining entry to popular schools.

It’s unclear whether board members will be willing to risk more backlash from parents who have the means to travel to other districts or pay private school tuition. The board did not vote on the latest lottery proposal, and it received mixed feedback.

Board member Diane Arnold said she supports holding more seats for later lotteries when more children of color apply.

“I like the fact that we are looking at playing with those percentages … connecting that to equity and trying to get more children engaged in those programs,” she said.

But board member Kelly Bentley was more skeptical. Equity is important, she said, but if parents don’t know whether their children are admitted to their top choice school until late April, they might choose another school.

“That’s a … loss of a student and a loss of revenue to the district,” she said. “I think we need to be very careful on making any changes.”

Indianapolis schools divided

School districts across the country are breaking apart, but Indianapolis is already divided

PHOTO: EdBuild
The report on school district secession was released Wednesday.

Communities across the U.S. are breaking away from larger urban districts, exacerbating segregation by race and class and draining money from school systems with the highest needs, according to a new report.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities,” said Rebecca Sibilia, CEO of Edbuild, which released the report Wednesday. “This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students.”

So far, the phenomenon of school district “secession” has largely bypassed Indianapolis, in part because the city’s schools are already separate — 10 districts surround Indianapolis Public Schools. That’s by design: State lawmakers wanted to avoid local backlash, so they chose not to merge school districts when Indianapolis and Marion County unified in 1970 under “Unigov.”

The national report from EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality, highlights districts across the country that have had some of the most dramatic secessions. A particularly egregious example is when six suburban towns within Shelby County split off from the Memphis school system. In Tennessee, municipalities with at least 1,500 students can secede if a majority of local voters approve.

Unlike Tennessee and other states where secession is common, Indiana law is less friendly to breakaway districts. If a community wants to split from a larger district, they must have the backing of a county committee, the Indiana State Board of Education and 55 percent of local voters, the report said. During that process, state and county officials have to consider how that move would affect school finances.

Since 2000, just one attempt at district secession has occurred within the state. The East Madison school district tried to secede from Anderson Community Schools in 2012, but the move was defeated.

There have not been any efforts for school districts to secede in Marion County, where they are already highly fragmented. In fact, the decision not to unify schools when the city and county merged has had far reaching effects.

As Chalkbeat reported in a story last year, the courts would later call that decision discriminatory, and it was a primary argument a federal judge cited in 1971 when he ordered desegregation busing of IPS students across school district lines into the townships. The program began in 1981 and ended last June.

The judge who ordered the busing, Samuel Dillin, stated bluntly that a merged city that left 11 separate school districts was racially motivated at a time when a majority of the region’s African-American and minority students lived in the city center while the surrounding school districts primarily enrolled white students.

“Unigov was not a perfect consolidation,” then-Mayor Richard Lugar told Chalkbeat. He went on to be one of Indiana’s most legendary political leaders as a six-term U.S. senator. “A good number of people really wanted to keep at least their particular school segregated.”

You can find EdBuild’s interactive graphic here and the entire report here.