School Vouchers and Segregation -- Robert K. Vischer

In the school voucher debate, one critical issue still unaddressed is the potential for vouchers to increase racial segregation

By Robert K. Vischer|June 20, 2001

In the school voucher debate, one critical issue still unaddressed is the potential for vouchers to increase racial segregation. Specifically, the widespread implementation of vouchers could increase segregation by fostering the creation and expansion of church-affiliated elementary and secondary schools. Given that American churches are already segregated to a great extent -- a 1998 study found that only 10 percent of American churches can be considered racially integrated -- increased attendance at church-affiliated schools may further exacerbate school segregation.


Currently, two obstacles prevent school attendance patterns from mirroring the racial segregation found in our nation's churches. First, many parents lack the funds to pay tuition at church-affiliated schools. Second, most churches do not operate their own schools. With the widespread implementation of vouchers, both of these obstacles could be surmounted. Parents would have money to pay tuition at church-affiliated schools, and the churches, in turn, would have the financial incentive to create and operate schools.


Of course, not every school created in response to the influx of voucher money will be affiliated with a church. But the concurrent development of nonreligious private schools may not adequately counter the potential segregative impact of the voucher-driven increase in church-affiliated schools.


First of all, the organizational advantages enjoyed by churches may put other entities seeking to enter the market in the position of playing catch-up. Many churches already have the physical infrastructure, a loyal consumer base, and the motivation to educate. And given that 85 percent of existing private schools are religious, religious schools will dominate the universe of alternatives available to voucher students for the foreseeable future.


Second, the number of students and parents who will choose church-affiliated schools under a voucher program -- even assuming the viability of secular alternatives -- cannot be underestimated. Religious participation in this country, especially among African Americans, remains remarkably high.


Third, the segregative dangers of vouchers stem not from the presumption that every student will use vouchers to attend religious schools, but that those who do so will often choose a school operated by a church that is attended almost exclusively by members of their own race.


But wait, the voucher proponent protests, don't initial studies of districts experimenting with vouchers (like Milwaukee) seem to indicate that vouchers have reduced segregation in private -- primarily church-affiliated -- schools? Isn't it conceivable that vouchers could actually increase diversity if made available to all students in a given metropolitan area? Given that school segregation is closely tied to the geographical segregation of our cities, won't vouchers promote integration by facilitating student mobility? Won't vouchers break the correlation between socioeconomic status and private schooling by removing a student's financial background from the equation?


This optimism is relevant only in the current educational market. Such arguments are based on the presumption that the supply of schools will remain roughly the same as it is today, giving students a limited spectrum of educational options. The true test of church-affiliated schools' segregative tendencies will come in the voucher-driven market, where a Catholic school will compete for students not against the local public school, but against other churches. For example, the increased student mobility argument presumes that students will have ample motivation to travel outside their geographical area for school. This presumption might be valid if an inner-city minority student has the choice of attending a failing public school near her home or a predominantly white Catholic school across town or in the suburbs. However, if the student also has the option of attending a neighborhood school that is affiliated with her own church, the motivation to travel diminishes significantly.


And although the potential for socioeconomic leveling is a welcome trait of experimental voucher programs today, it also presumes a limited school supply. Currently, a low-income student who wishes to use a private school voucher likely will choose a school that -- because it has been unable to rely on government funds for its existence -- has had a wealthier, whiter student body capable of paying tuition. Once vouchers are more common, however, the school supply will expand and diversify in response to the demand created by the available pool of government funds. Unlike the pre-voucher market, there is no assurance that students from different socioeconomic backgrounds will be drawn to the same schools when there is a full range of choices available. A functioning market will supply schools based on families' cultural, religious, and even racial preferences, providing new avenues for school segregation to occur.


Of course, in a nation increasingly desperate to remedy the well-documented failures of many public schools, some may respond to the prospect of increased racial segregation with a collective shrug. An unswerving devotion to racial integration at the expense of meaningful reform seems akin to losing sight of the forest for the trees, given the reality of the educational crisis facing low-income, predominantly minority students. Admittedly, the segregation that might result from vouchers is qualitatively different than the segregation that existed before Brown v. Board of Education. But if trade-offs must be made between meaningful school reform and racial diversity, they should be the product of collective deliberation and political resolution.


Robert K. Vischer is an attorney at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, Illinois. He welcomes feedback at


This column is based on his article "Racial Segregation in American Churches and Its Implications for School Vouchers," published in the April 2001 issue of The Florida Law Review. The full article is available on-line at