choice words

Critics of vouchers say they’re marred by racism and exacerbate segregation. Are they right?

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Debates over “school choice” — or “privatization” to critics — were already heated.

Then came a rhetorical hand grenade: a report by the Center For American Progress describing the “racist origins” of school vouchers and presented at the American Federation of Teachers headquarters. AFT president Randi Weingarten doubled down in a recent speech, arguing that voucher programs are the “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”

Unsurprisingly, school choice backers have vehemently denied the charge.

“If vouchers are the polite cousins of segregation, then most urban school districts are segregation’s direct descendants,” responded Kevin Chavous of the American Federation for Children, the school voucher group that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos used to lead.

DeVos, for her part, has argued that school choice is meant to help poor families and can lead to more integrated schools.

So what do we know about the competing claims?

It’s true that the idea of public subsidies for private school tuition grew in the 1950s and 60s as a means to avoid integration efforts — and it’s also true that there has long been pockets of support for the idea among progressives.

There is little evidence that existing voucher programs have caused increases in racial segregation. But there is also reason to fear a larger initiative, one that’s not limited to low-income families, might.

And the debate is no doubt complicated by the embrace of vouchers by the Trump administration, one that advocates say is impeding civil rights on many fronts beyond education.

Here are five things you should know.

1. Advocates for school vouchers have had diverse motives over time, including support for segregation,  as well as racial justice.

Private school vouchers were used to avoid court-ordered integration in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, as The Center for American Progress report lays out.

“By 1969, more than 200 private segregation academies were set up in states across the South,” the report states. “Seven of those states — Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana — maintained tuition grant programs that offered vouchers to students in an effort to incentivize white students to leave desegregated public school districts.”

This history is echoed by a study in the Peabody Journal of Education. “From their inception, vouchers were not race-neutral instruments,” a trio of researchers write. Those early voucher programs predated the support of Milton Friedman, the economist who wrote an influential 1955 essay endorsing the idea.

Friedman’s embrace of vouchers was based on the view that expanding competition would improve outcomes for students and make schools more integrated, building upon the philosophical work from a century earlier of John Stuart Mill. The idea also received support from more progressive corners, including Christopher Jencks, a Harvard sociologist who supported using vouchers to try to “close the gap between the disadvantaged and the advantaged.”

In a 2005 article for the Georgetown Law Journal titled “The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First,” James Forman, Jr., now a Yale professor, acknowledges that vouchers were used to avoid integration but describes this history as “incomplete.”

He points to freedom schools established in 1964 in Mississippi by civil rights groups to educate black children who had been failed by the discriminatory public system as one example.

“By building separate schools and openly repudiating the establishment system, the freedom schools movement laid a foundation for later progressive school choice proposals,” Forman wrote.

Despite how vouchers were used in the 1950s and 1960s, the Peabody analysis points out that support for them grew among some progressives starting in the 1970s “as an antidote for overly bureaucratic big-city schools.”

The first voucher program in line with this vision was established in Milwaukee in 1990, with the support of a motley coalition of conservative Republicans and black Milwaukee Democrats. Among the latter group were Howard Fuller, who would later become Milwaukee’s school superintendent, and Polly Williams, a Democratic state senator.

The initiative was targeted at low-income families but would subsequently expand to include some middle-class students, a move that Fuller and Williams opposed. Williams would say that the program had been “hijacked.” The Milwaukee NAACP was against the city’s voucher initiative from its inception.

Private school choice programs have since grown throughout the country; many, though not all, target low- or moderate-income families, students attending public schools deemed low-performing, or students with disabilities. Leading pro-voucher groups support a dramatic expansion, including the creation of universal choice programs that all families can use.

By law, private schools that receive federal tax exemptions are now prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, though many of the original segregation academies still enroll few if any black students.

In sum, private school vouchers have been promoted by adherents with diverse motives, including some who viewed them as a way to avoid desegregation and others who saw school choice as a means to achieve racial justice.

Students at University Prep, a Denver elementary charter school, work on a computer-based assignment .
PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

2. There is little evidence today that vouchers targeted at low-income families increase school segregation.

A key question now is whether voucher programs increase school segregation in practice. There is surprisingly little recent research on this topic, but the studies that do exist suggest that voucher programs for low-income students have no effect or they lead to small increases in school integration.

A recent study on Louisiana’s voucher program, which is largely used by low-income African-American students, found that black students tended to leave highly segregated public schools — but many also moved to a segregated private school. Still, more transfers had beneficial effects on integration than harmful ones.

“A third of all voucher transfers resulted in more integrated public and private schools, an additional 57 percent of transfers had mixed effects (positive effects in one sector, negative effects in another), and just 9 percent of transfers had negative effects,” as lead author Anna Egalite described the results.

A 2010 analysis of Milwaukee’s school voucher program found that it had a neutral effect on segregation. “Racially homogeneous schools make up a sizeable portion of schools in both [public and private] sectors,” the researchers wrote.

A number of older studies paint a positive picture of vouchers’ effect on integration, but this research cannot isolate cause and effect, as a report by EdChoice points out.

3. That doesn’t mean concerns about vouchers causing segregation are completely unfounded, though.

Large-scale voucher programs — which Betsy DeVos has promised and long advocated for — could have different results.

Research on charter schools in the U.S. and on vouchers in other countries offer more clues about how school choice programs sort students.

A report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, argues that vouchers threaten integration efforts, relying in part on evidence from Chile, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden. Widespread choice programs have been shown to exacerbate segregation in those countries across a number of dimensions. (There are many reasons, though, that education policy lessons from other countries might not translate cleanly to the U.S.)

Research on charter schools — a form of school choice that has expanded much more rapidly than vouchers — may be a helpful guide for the effects of a universal voucher program.

Studies on charter schools in Indianapolis, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas, among other places, show that charter schools can lead to greater racial stratification. There is very little evidence suggesting charters lead to more integrated schools, though a number of specific charter schools have emphasized diversity. National overviews have not found consistent evidence that charters cause segregation.

PHOTO: Dustin Chamber, courtesy of Fugee Academy.

4. The level of support for vouchers among black and Hispanic voters depends on how the question is worded.

Advocates for school choice often point to the support of black and Hispanic voters. An Education Next poll found that nearly 64 percent of African-Americans and 62 percent of Hispanics — compared to 50 percent of white respondents — would back a tax credit program to fund private school tuition.

But support for private school choice programs tends to drop substantially when the word “voucher” is introduced or the use of public dollars is emphasized.

According to another recent poll, just one-third of African-Americans said they would support “allowing students and parent to choose a private school to attend at public expense.” Ballot initiatives on school vouchers have also rarely been successful, though breakdowns of votes by race are not available.

5. The Trump administration’s stance on other issues makes vouchers seem more racist to some critics.

To some, the national messenger for vouchers is just as damning as the message.

Criticism of President Trump’s positions on civil rights — his ban on travel from several predominantly Muslims countries, his appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, and his voter integrity commission based on false claims of widespread voter fraud — are well documented.

“Racism is unfortunately and undeniably part of the context through which policy proposals emerging from this administration must be considered,” wrote Catherine Brown of the Center for American Progress.

But to supporters of vouchers, emphasizing the politics and not the policy amounts to opposing an idea that could help low-income kids.

“I absolutely worry about the Trump administration embrace of this issue because it’s created more of a political wedge,” Chavous of the American Federation for Children told Chalkbeat in May. “So are we going to wait four years to find something for these parents whose kids are struggling? Are we going to wait eight years? His embrace of the issue is a challenge politically, but we still have to do something for these kids who are underserved.”

Whether vouchers actually accomplish that goal remains its own hotly contested question.

choice for most

Chalkbeat explains: When can private schools discriminate against students?

PHOTO: Julia Donheiser

Over $16 million of public funds went to Indiana private schools with anti-LGBT policies last year, a recent Chalkbeat investigation found.

You might be asking: Is it legal to discriminate against those students?

The answer is yes, and that’s become a focus of the national debate about school choice. (U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fanned the flames on this one when she offered ambiguous answers about whether all students would be welcome in schools that participated in a potential national voucher program.)

But the rules are tricky when it comes to private schools, especially religious ones. Here’s your guide to understanding when, why and how private schools can say no to certain students.

Are there laws in place that prevent discrimination against LGBT students?

There is no federal legislation explicitly protecting LGBT students from discrimination in schools. That means when it comes to gender and sexuality, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act — which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex — is the main piece of legislation in play.

Title IX applies to private schools that accept federal funds — and many private schools do, usually through school breakfast or lunch programs, grants, or funding for low-income students.

However, some schools qualify for exemptions. All-boys or all-girls schools are allowed to restrict their admissions accordingly, for example.

Most important to the discussion of LGBT students: Private schools run by religious organizations are exempt “to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.” A majority of private schools in the U.S. are religious, which means that most private schools are free to discriminate against LGBT students on religious grounds.

In Indiana, Chalkbeat found that at least 27 schools that accept vouchers have policies that suggest or declare that LGBT students are unwelcome.

What about private schools that aren’t religious?

At non-religious private schools, Title IX’s nondiscrimination rules do apply. But a change in interpretation means the law offers fewer protections to transgender students than it has in the past.

Under the Obama administration, the ban on discriminating on the basis of sex was interpreted as related either to biological sex or to gender identity. However, the Trump administration rescinded guidance on that front — meaning the federal government considers Title IX to only bar discrimination based on a student’s biological sex.

Do any states have laws that prevent discrimination against LGBT students?

Many states have implemented their own nondiscrimination policies regarding sexual orientation and gender identity — in the world of public education. But no voucher programs have such policies in place, research shows.

As a result, private schools are free to turn away LGBT students while still receiving public funding for accepting vouchers.

What about other forms of discrimination?

Private schools can’t discriminate on the basis of race if they want tax-exempt status. The executive director of the Council for American Private Education, Joe McTighe, said he wasn’t “familiar with any nonprofit private schools that elect against tax-exempt status.”

If private schools accept federal funds, they are also bound to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.

When it comes to students with disabilities, private schools have more leeway to turn students away.

This is partly because students who choose to attend a private school — including through a voucher program — forfeit their right to a “free appropriate public education” that they are otherwise guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Another law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, bars discrimination on the basis of disability and requires private schools to accept students so long as only “minor adjustments” are needed to accommodate them. But it exempts religiously run private schools.

Under a third law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, those protections apply to religious schools, too — if the school receives federal funds.

choice for most

Choice for most: In nation’s largest voucher program, $16 million went to schools with anti-LGBT policies

PHOTO: Julia Donheiser

When it comes to school choice, options are more limited for Indiana’s LGBT students.

Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington recently made headlines for promising students an excellent, “biblically integrated” education — unless they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. The school also received more than $650,000 in public funds last year through the state’s voucher program.

The school’s admissions policy has made Lighthouse the focus of an intensifying national debate: whether private schools that discriminate against students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity should be able to receive taxpayer dollars.

But as that debate heats up, it’s been unclear how many schools have policies like Lighthouse’s.

Chalkbeat tried to find out. In Indiana, over 34,299 students used vouchers to attend a private school last fall, making it the largest such program in the country. It’s also a program that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has applauded — which means Indiana offers a helpful glimpse at how a DeVos-led national expansion of vouchers might shape up.

Our investigation found that roughly one in 10 of Indiana’s voucher schools publicly shares a policy suggesting or declaring that LGBT students are not welcome. Together, the 27 schools received over $16 million in public funds for participating last year.

Many private, religious schools are also accredited by a group that provides advice about how to turn away LGBT students. Given that nearly 20 percent of schools do not publicize their admissions policies, the true number of schools with anti-LGBT policies is unclear.

“These findings are likely an understatement,” said Steve Suitts, a professor who has researched discrimination against LGBT students in Georgia’s voucher program.

However, Chalkbeat did not find public, discriminatory policies at the vast majority of schools. In fact, many had rules in place to protect students from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Legally speaking, private schools are allowed to turn away LGBT students — and many voucher proponents say it’s important to provide families with the option to attend schools that can instill students with their religious values.

There is no federal legislation explicitly protecting LGBT students from discrimination in schools, and no statewide voucher programs offer their own protections based on sexual orientation. (Students are typically protected from discrimination based on race and national origin.)

But as DeVos pushes for a national expansion of voucher programs, she’s sent mixed messages about discrimination. It’s wrong “in any form,” she’s said. But when grilled by senators on the issue in June, she used the same response 14 times: “Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law.”

By the numbers

As of May, 302 schools are eligible to accept vouchers in Indiana. Of the 27 schools that have anti-LGBT policies, 19 state that they can either refuse to admit or expel students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity on religious grounds.

Six schools require parents to affirm that “homosexual behavior,” among other items, “is sinful and offensive to God,” and two schools limited students’ bathroom use to their biological sex.

The vast majority of Indiana’s private schools accepting vouchers do not mention gender or sexuality in their school policies or handbooks. For over 60 schools that don’t share either of those documents online, Chalkbeat reached out to discuss their policies.

Another 27 schools offer specific protections for LGBT students. (Explore policies by school, county and city here.)

Policies in practice

Victory Christian Academy in Northwest Indiana is among the schools that publicly shares an explicitly discriminatory admissions policy. It received $630,000 for enrolling 160 students using vouchers last school year.

The school’s handbook states that it reserves the right to refuse admission to or remove a student “if the atmosphere or the conduct within a particular home or the activities of the student” crosses certain lines, including LGBT activity.

However, a former administrator at Victory said that no students had ever been turned away because of their sexuality. He described the policy as a warning meant to reduce conflict.

“We’re not trying to block anyone from our school,” said Tony Clymer. “We’re just trying to stay in the affirmative what kind of school we are, what we hold to be near and dear.”

“If that doesn’t match with your family,” he added, “we’d rather know up front rather than for your student to be here or you to be here and find out later.”

Administrators at Lakeland Christian Academy, which has a policy similar to Victory’s, told Chalkbeat — and Lighthouse previously told the Indianapolis Star — that their school had never refused admission to a student because they identified as LGBT.

Enrollment at these institutions is often framed as entering into a mutual agreement, such that the students attending them are on board with every aspect of the school’s mission.

“It’s our role to work in conjunction with the home to mold students to be Christ-like. If your goal is not to become more Christ-like, this school doesn’t make sense,” Clymer said. “It would be like sending your child to a magnet school for the arts when your child has no desire to be in the arts.”

What happens if a student who is already enrolled begins to question their sexuality or gender?

Joy Lavender, an administrator at Lakeland last year, said a guidance counselor would talk with the student and that the school would contact their parents to determine a course of action.

“Our goal here at Lakeland is not necessarily, ‘You do something wrong, you’re kicked out,’” Lavender said. “Our reason for expulsion for any kind of infraction is because we feel like that student is not able to be restored or that they’re not salvageable or they’re very negative about the things we believe in.”

Lavender noted that students at Lakeland have questioned their sexuality, but “it never became an issue, so they graduated from here.”

The mentality is the same at Victory, where Clymer said students question their sexuality “every year, all the time.” The school’s response is to encourage students to take on their role found in the Bible, which is defined as as entering into a marriage between a man and a woman.

Guiding principles

Lakeland, Lighthouse and Victory Christian Academies have something else in common: their accreditation.

More than half of schools — 14 out of 27 — with anti-LGBT policies were accredited by Association of Christian Schools International, which has more than 3,000 member schools in the U.S. The pro school-choice group provides its members with a handbook titled “Steps Your School Can Take When Dealing With Homosexual Issues.”

See for yourself: A side-by-side comparison of ACSI’s suggested policy and one of its member schools’ policy on LGBT students.

The book suggests that schools say they may refuse admissions to or expel a student for “participating in, supporting, or condoning sexual immorality, homosexual activity, or bisexual activity.” In most cases, ACSI member schools used the same wording.

The handbook also recommends that schools ask for a reference from a pastor. If “a parent of a young child indicates that he or she is in a homosexual lifestyle,” it advises school officials to tell the parent that their child will be denied admission.

If a school and a student reach an “impasse” regarding sexual orientation or gender identity issues, the handbook recommends the school “disenroll,” rather than expel, the student to avoid legal problems.

Despite the book’s advice, ACSI’s director of legal and legislative issues said he hoped schools are a safe place for kids questioning their sexuality.

“We’d want them to know that they could talk to their teachers or their school leaders about these things and they would be able to help them,” said Tom Cathey.

Thirty-three of ACSI’s member schools are eligible to receive vouchers next fall, making it the second-largest religious accrediting group among schools in Indiana’s voucher program. The largest religious accreditor in Indiana is the National Catholic Education Association, with 110 schools — and the group takes a different approach when it comes to LGBT students.

None of NCEA’s member schools shared anti-LGBT policies on their websites, and 12 of its schools offered protections for LGBT students in the form of anti-bullying or anti-harassment policies. (The group’s director of public relations, Margaret Kaplow, said the NCEA “does not lobby for or against policy of any kind.”)

Roncalli High School is one of NCEA’s schools to offer its LGBT students protections. The Indianapolis Catholic school’s anti-harassment policy states, “No racist, sexist or homophobic expression, language or behavior will be tolerated.”

Its co-director of guidance, Shelly Fitzgerald, said Roncalli aims to provide a positive environment for all students, including those who identify as LGBT.

“We counsel all kids the same, in terms of relationships, things that they go through — heterosexual or bisexual or questioning,” Fitzgerald said. If students aren’t comfortable talking with guidance counselors, she said, they can be referred to the school’s social worker or outside support groups, such as Indiana Youth Group.

Still, there are restrictions at some of NCEA’s member schools on how open students can be about their sexual orientation. Three define students’ dates as members of the opposite sex when they discuss school dances or prom in their handbooks.

Ambiguity and politics

The vast majority of schools in Indiana don’t mention LGBT students in their policies.

Suitts said he thinks recent media focus has pushed headmasters and school boards to be less clear on this front.

“Before, there was a greater tendency of headmasters to be verbal or forthcoming even if they didn’t have an explicit policy about whether they would accept gay students,” Suitts said. “But the Supreme Court decision and litigation, the whole discussion that’s going on, has made them much more obtuse on this issue publicly.”

However, supporters of school choice say that different belief systems are what make school choice important — even if some students are left out.

“I find it abhorrent that there are schools that say that children who themselves are gay are not welcome there,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which advocates for school choice. “But if we believe in a pluralist system, then there’s got to be room — again, for what I may find abhorrent — to be a part of that, if we believe it’s important for parents, especially low-income and working class parents, to get to have a choice.”

Suzanne Eckes, a professor who has researched discrimination in private school voucher programs, said that allowing some schools to discriminate against LGBT students on the basis of religion is no different than racial discrimination.

“People say just don’t apply to one of those schools,” Eckes said. “And that doesn’t sit well with me, because we made the same argument in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s about black kids.”

Although DeVos has promised to unveil a national school choice initiative, it falls on states to decide whether private schools receiving public funds can discriminate based on sexual orientation — a decision, the education secretary has argued, that should continue to be made at the local level.