RADNOR, Pa. - The Supreme Court recently ruled as constitutional a Cleveland program allowing low-income children, most of them African-American, to use vouchers to attend private schools.
Opponents claim that school choice is elitist. But, in fact, a wealth of research shows that traditional public schools are more racist and elitist than most private schools. As Diane Ravitch documents in Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, public school racism has a long history.
To make schools efficient like factories, early 20th century reformers who developed American public education set up enormous schools offering different courses of study for different kinds of students. The reformers thought that most students were not capable of learning academic material, and that was doubly true of ethnic minorities.
We are still paying for their mistakes.
As Arthur G. Powell and his collaborators showed in their classic study The Shopping Mall High School, in large public schools, teachers and administrators have a tough time getting to know students as individuals. By default, they often judge students by ethnicity rather than ability. This means systematically tracking African-American kids away from challenging courses to protect them from failure, or, as President Bush puts it, practicing "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
As black educator Lisa Delpit laments in her angry, award-winning Other People's Children, "We say we believe that all children can learn, but few of us really believe it." In many public schools "with all intentions of `being nice,' teachers had essentially stopped attempting to teach black children."
U.S. Education Department data show white children taking an average of 1.79 courses in higher mathematics while African-Americans took only 1.14 courses. As reported in the 1998 Brookings Institution volume The Black-White Test Score Gap, the divide between black and white scores on standardized tests grows the longer black students attend public schools. Without a background in academic subjects, black kids have trouble keeping up in college.
A few public school systems acknowledge the gap between black and white achievement and work to close it, but, as Ms. Delpit suggests, most districts sweep it under the rug.
As vouchers in Cleveland and Milwaukee show, there are other ways to educate minority children. Most private schools and many public charter schools are small enough that teachers and principals know all of the students. They have a common academic vision for all of them rather than different tracks for different groups.
Perhaps because of this, research summarized by Anthony Bryk and his colleagues in Catholic Schools and the Common Good suggests that minority students do better in Catholic schools than in traditional public schools.
A team led by Harvard professor Paul Peterson found that African-American students who won lotteries for vouchers to attend private schools made significantly greater academic progress than did identical students who entered but lost the lotteries. (The private schools did better even though most get far less money than public schools). In The Education Gap, just published by Brookings, Mr. Peterson and his collaborators suggest that voucher programs could erase the black-white test score gap.
Similarly, in a recent Texas Education Review article, political scientist Jay P. Greene finds that black, white and Hispanic kids are more likely to eat lunch together in private schools, particularly religious schools, than in traditional public schools, where the cafeteria is often segregated.
My own research suggests that charter schools, which are small, self-governing public schools chosen by their students, rarely track students and seem to have better race relations than traditional public schools.
The lessons for traditional public schools seem clear: They need to be smaller and they need academic programs for all of their students. And where minority parents feel their civil rights are violated, they should have other choices such as scholarships to low-cost private schools.
Competition will force public schools to serve minorities rather than keep them in place.
Robert Maranto, a former Baltimorean, teaches political science at Villanova University and co-authored School Choice in the Real World (Westview, 2001).