Ever since Milton Friedman called for vouchers in 1955 with his essay “The Role of Government in Education”—published in a festschrift for Eugene Agger, longstanding chairman of the Economics Department at Rutgers University—skeptics of school choice have expressed concern about segregation.

While Friedman argued in this essay that vouchers would provide students a way out of segregated neighborhoods, he also conceded—in a long footnote—that segregationists might very well employ vouchers to enroll their children in all-white private schools instead of public schools mandated to integrate by the Supreme Court a year earlier in Brown v. Board of Education. To Friedman, the answer was not forced integration but rather persuasion over time of the merits of integration.

In defiance of Brown, lawmakers across seven states—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia—ended up implementing vouchers to fund all-white schools. In protesting such vouchers in Virginia, in particular, NAACP lawyer Oliver Hill captured the indignation of many: “No one in a democratic society has a right to have his private prejudices financed at public expense.”

Ultimately, court orders—not moral suasion, as Friedman advocated—brought an end to this explicit form of segregation, with vouchers themselves shelved until they were reintroduced in Milwaukee in 1990 for students from low-income families. Skeptics of school choice have nevertheless remained on guard about implicit variations of segregation achieved by charter schools through marketing and location. Much as some wealthier and whiter communities have been seceding from school districts to form their own school districts—as documented by EdBuild, an advocacy organization focused on school funding inequities—some charter schools appear to be creating islands of homogeneity and privilege.

In “When Schools Open: Student Mobility and Racial Sorting Across New Charter Schools in Kansas City, Missouri,” Patrick Denice, Michael DeArmond, and Matthew Carr tackle this issue in exploring the enrollment data of 17 new charter schools that opened from 2011 to 2015 in the Show-Me State’s biggest city. The authors find that a disproportionate number of white students transferred into new charter schools, that white students appeared to be transferring into new charter schools with more white students, and, perhaps most significantly, that much of this racial sorting was associated with two new charter schools.

Clear, probing, and buttressed with five tables and five charts, this study breaks new ground and raises important questions about school choice and governance.

Samuel E. Abrams
Director, NCSPE
June 25, 2019