Article Published in the Roanoke Times
WITH VIRGINIA leading the way, “freedom of choice” became a Southern strategy for blunting the impact of mandatory school desegregation after the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision of May 1954.
No doubt there were some proponents of choice who sincerely thought more lasting integration would result from voluntary transfers by black and white families than from mandatory assignments on the basis of race. Freedom of choice, after all, was a more moderate course than ugly “massive resistance,” also contrived in the Old Virginia of the ’50s.
But choice in the 1960s put the burden on black parents to offer their children as battering rams against an entrenched social system many whites still favored. The courts said that wasn’t fair.
So in the 1970s, mandatory busing began. The public schools have gone through that tumultuous era, and the old system of officially imposed racial segregation is dead and buried. We are approaching 50 years after Brown.
Has anyone noticed that the context for freedom of choice is completely changed? That majorities of both black and white parents now say in poll after poll that they favor freedom of educational choice?
Unfortunately, the legacy of resistance to integration still hinders efforts to give Virginia families the benefits of school choice. A new Education Freedom Index generated by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research shows that three of the 10 states ranking lowest in educational options for families are in the South: Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia.
Virginia is 44th nationally on an index that measures access to public charter schools, other forms of public-school choice, tax credits or vouchers for attending private school, and a favorable regulatory climate for home-schooling.
Few Virginia politicians have been brave enough even to propose expanded choice. Former Gov. George Allen is one, having made a $1,000 tax credit for educational expenses the centerpiece of his current campaign for U.S. Senate. That would be a credit on federal income taxes, however. The General Assembly has bottled up in committee the past two years a school-choice tax credit on state income taxes backed by the Family Foundation and others.
Whenever choice proposals emerge in Richmond, opponents turn out to loudly cry “resegregation” and to invoke the bad old days. But it’s time to recognize that this is a bright new day, full of opportunity.
There’s now solid research showing that empowering parents to choose their children’s schools actually increases racial integration, substantially. It is available in a study by Jay P. Greene for the Friedman Foundation entitled “Choosing Integration.” Here are some of Dr. Greene’s national findings:
More than half of public-school students (54.5 percent) are in classrooms that are more than 90 percent white or 90 percent minority. Fewer private-school students (41.1 percent) are in classes with such a high degree of racial isolation.
More than one-third (36.6 percent) of private-school students are in classes in which the racial composition is between 15 percent and 35 percent minority, an optimum range for integration. By contrast, only 18 percent of public-school children are in such integrated classrooms.
In Milwaukee and Cleveland, the two cities with long-running voucher programs for private-school choice, voucher parents have a significantly better chance of getting their kids in integrated classes than do their public-school counterparts.
In Cleveland, for instance, almost one-fifth of voucher students (19 percent) go to private schools where the proportion of whites falls within 10 percent of the metropolitan-wide average. Just 5.2 percent of Cleveland public-school students are in similarly integrated schools.
Observations of public- and private-school lunchrooms also revealed that private-school students mingle interracially more freely than do public-school students. By one measure, there was by almost a 2-to-1 margin more voluntary socializing among the races in private lunchrooms than public ones.
Greene believes freely chosen private schools promote integration because “families are more likely to trust the operators of those schools to manage integration more successfully. Integration raises various concerns, some reasonable and some not, in some parents’ minds, mostly concerning safety and discipline.”
In addition, private schools have the advantage of being able to enroll students from outside a school district, while a public school may be stuck with the effects of residential segregation.
Imagine Virginia children of all races and backgrounds being able to select widely from schools, public or private, that best meet their needs. Wouldn’t integration be likely to increase naturally?
Why shouldn’t there be a well-designed, fair experiment to see what the benefits of freedom might be? After all, as retired Gen. Colin Powell asked at last summer’s GOP Convention regarding vouchers, charters, home-schooling and other forms of choice, “What are we afraid of?”
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