Does School Choice Increase Diversity at Independent Schools? The Verdict Is Still Out

A teacher at Trinity Episcopal School in New Orleans instructs her class. (Photo courtesy Trinity Episcopal School)
A teacher at Trinity Episcopal School in New Orleans instructs her class.
(Photo courtesy Trinity Episcopal School)

Heated conversations about school choice have dominated K-12 dialogue at the federal level since U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos took her seat in February 2017. But much of the debate has been divided by political party rather than focusing on research into the important question: Does school choice benefit students?

The answer to that question is still largely unknown because data is scarce. Even more uncertain is whether school choice programs increase diversity at independent schools, and if so, how. Debra Wilson, general counsel at National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), says “there are a lot of moving parts” to school choice programs. Wilson also oversees government relations for the association.

Funding structures for school choice programs vary around the country but normally fall into a few categories — vouchers, scholarships, and tax incentives. The voucher programs are the most controversial because they divert taxpayer dollars from public schools to K-12 private schools.

Most school choice legislation is happening at the state level, with recent federal intervention coming in the form of a loophole in the tax reform bill President Donald Trump signed into law in December 2017. The loophole allows parents to use 529 college saving plan dollars to pay for up to 10 percent of private school tuition.

That reform equates to a federal tax incentive, however, and does not direct money away from public school districts. The most recent federal effort “humming along,” Wilson says,” is the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, which would allow corporations and individuals to receive tax breaks by donating to scholarship-like school choice programs.

That program would not directly sap public school dollars, though it would provide $5 billion annually in dollar-for-dollar matching federal tax credits for donations to scholarship-granting organizations. States would be able to choose whether to participate in the program or not. “It’s a different model than we’ve seen before,” Wilson says, “and it works on an individual state level where states have control over how it would be implemented.”

It was not clear how the government plans to account for the loss in federal tax revenue.

NAIS is typically not involved in legislation that has an impact on public school funding, Wilson says. Instead, the association focuses on tax credits and scholarship-based programs. “Those are not hurting public schools. It doesn’t take money away from them,” Wilson says. “We can only educate so much of the population. It doesn’t make sense to undercut public education. It just doesn’t.”

Lawrence Alexander, a college admissions counselor for White Mountain School in New Hampshire and a DiversityIS Editorial Board member, says he sees educational choice objectively as beneficial in some ways, though he says it is not a solution for improving diversity and inclusion in independent schools.

“There is an immediate implicit association with school choice equaling somehow a leveling of the playing field and enriching education options,” Alexander says. “I believe that’s true in part, but I do not believe that it is a panacea for enriching their racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity. That always has been what scholarship dollars, institutional earmarks, and endowments are going to be for.”

Neighboring Vermont provides a voucher program launched in 1869 that subsidizes education for students in communities without public schools. Town Tuition Program money — known as sending dollars — can be used at other schools in or out of the state, both private and public. The program has been criticized for allowing wealthy families to use tax dollars to pay for tuition at costly out-of-state schools, though Alexander says it has brought some socioeconomic diversity among White students to his school.

While the socioeconomic diversity is positive, Alexander adds, school choice and sending dollars are not synonymous with socioeconomic and racial diversity. “If you take the case of our sending dollars with Vermont’s program, $16,000 potentially for a day school student within the context of a $50,000 to $60,000 bill, that alone is not going to achieve that ethnic and racial diversity,” Alexander says.

How Success Is Measured in School Choice
At least one entity is looking into how school choice programs affect diversity at independent schools. Doug Harris is director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA-New Orleans) at Tulane University. He says a new initiative, the recently launched National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice, will look at a broad range of questions regarding school choice policies, including their effects on segregation at all kinds of schools.

The trick with studying segregation in schools is to differentiate between correlation and causation. “Schools might be segregated, but it might not be because of the policies,” Harris says. Tracking control groups before and after implementation of school choice policies is one standard measure for their effects.

Harris and his colleagues have already studied the impact of school choice programs within New Orleans, which opened up education to a market-based system in 2008. The city instituted a voucher program, allowing moderate- to low-income students in low-performing public schools to use publicly financed scholarships to attend private schools. Louisiana expanded vouchers statewide four years later.

In the 2012-2013 school year, nearly 60 percent of eligible applicants received scholarships, and 86 percent of them used their vouchers to enroll in private schools. Roughly 87 percent were Black, 8 percent were White, and 3 percent were Hispanic, according to ERA-New Orleans. Researchers tracked student achievement over three years, following performance in language arts and mathematics. 

The results showed a drastically negative effect on participants in the first year, though over the following two years performance improved. Essentially, students ended up back where they started from over the three-year period, a phenomenon the researchers named “drop and recovery.” It’s not exactly clear why the drop occurs, but researchers speculate it could be connected to academic disruption in switching schools.

Regardless of academic success, it’s still not clear whether school choice policies can be used to effectively increase service to underrepresented students. “The evidence is pretty mixed on whether those programs themselves seem to increase diversity,” Harris says. “The schools would have to be pretty deliberately focused on that for it to have an effect. [School choice] is not going to help with diversity in most cases, but it could, depending on how the voucher program is set up.”

Information on what types of private and independent schools use the voucher programs in the U.S. is limited, though three ERA-New Orleans researchers studied those participating in voucher programs in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., and Indiana. They found some schools with a mission to serve low-income and disadvantaged students might participate in a program simply to meet their non-financial goals.

But the programs can also cost schools money, the researchers found. Vouchers usually don’t cover full tuition, making it difficult for low-income students to participate even if they do receive a scholarship.

Potential Pitfalls of School Choice
Whereas tax dollars are guaranteed for public schools, school choice programs are new and possibly not as reliable as state or federal funding. Independent school leaders need to plan for the long-term when considering participating in them.

Independent schools also need to be aware of the regulations and rules that come with school choice programs. Those requirements might relate to testing or providing student records to the state. “What the government or state gives you rarely comes without a string attached,” Wilson says. “It’s not so much that all regulation is bad, but knowing the nuances and knowing if your school can meet those expectations [is important].”

Additionally, independent school administrators should plan for the possibility that program funding could dry up. If the state pays for two-thirds of a kindergartner’s tuition, what happens if the funding disappears when that child is in second grade? Whether it’s a rainy-day fund or another support plan, schools need “to have the best interest of the student in mind to make sure that if the state funding gets pulled, then you’re not disturbing that student’s life,” Wilson says.

School leaders must also consider a student’s needs when participating in school choice programs. Children may have different requirements depending on their age and previous education experience, whether those needs relate to health care or special support services.

Institutions should also address how underrepresented communities perceive them. “The reputation for most independent schools is they’re for the wealthy elite and tend to be almost all one racial ethnic group,” Harris says. “They need to take a more deliberate approach to recruitment and send clear messages that diverse students are welcome to apply. … If you want to increase diversity, it’s almost all about overcoming perception of the schools.”

Regardless of how education choice programs end up affecting diversity among independent school students, the repercussions are going to be important to the dialogue, Alexander says.

“The preponderance of the conversation is almost ‘to be or not to be’ with school choice,” Alexander says. “We need to move from listening to the policymakers to listening to the students and families that these policies impact. They will be the best indices for success.”

Kelsey Landis is the editor-in-chief of DiversityIS. This article ran in the Summer 2019 issue.