Race and Equity

I got to choose private schools, but will vouchers really help other kids make it?

One of the first cities to embrace private school vouchers thinks not

I was a statistical anomaly growing up in New Orleans: a black boy from a relatively well-off family in a city with one of the widest racial wealth gaps in the country. My childhood included yearly trips abroad and private schools for which my parents paid full freight. Those facts often put me in awkward situations.

One night, my senior year of high school, I found myself on campus late without a ride home. I fiddled with my cellphone until a classmate, a white guy who was on the track team with most of the other black guys in my grade, came down the main stairs and offered me a lift. I didn’t play sports and we didn’t know each other well, so it was a nice gesture, especially since he lived in the opposite direction, in a suburb called Metairie.

We climbed into his car and took the 15-minute drive down Claiborne Avenue, New Orleans’ main east-west drag, and onto the Interstate. We talked about music. He showed off his knowledge of rap music, which I didn’t particularly like. Then we moved on to the overlapping list of elite colleges most of our classmates were applying to. (He would end up at Dartmouth; I went to Emory.) As we got off I-10 at Esplanade Avenue, near my home, it dawned on me that he would be one of the few classmates who had seen where I lived. As a black kid navigating New Orleans’s overwhelmingly white private schools, I spent most of my adolescence in their neighborhoods and at their homes.

I lived in a large 19th century home on a tree-lined street just off of Esplanade Avenue. Yet two blocks from where I lived, more modest shotgun houses dominated. It was a good neighborhood, but one that white people avoided. As my classmate dropped me off, he remarked — seeming surprised — how nice the houses were and complimented mine. This made me feel both proud and irritated: He knew so little about my neighborhood. I went to bed that night feeling self-righteous about how much more I knew about New Orleans and its people, impervious to my own blind spots.

Really, there was a lot about New Orleans, and my own neighborhood, that I knew very little of. I grew up across the street from a school that I had never stepped foot in, Joseph S. Clark Senior High School. It was the second public high school established for African-Americans in New Orleans, a Treme institution that has produced pillars of New Orleans’s African-American community. My mom’s parents met there. But by the time I was growing up, the middle class had abandoned Clark. Most public schools served only the students unable to escape the system, which, in New Orleans, means poor black kids. Study after study has concluded that segregated schools concentrate and amplify the myriad issues that come with growing up poor and black in America. These schools were almost certainly doomed to failure.

In 2001, when my family began looking for a high school I could attend, Clark placed close to the very bottom of the state’s ranking system. But that wasn’t something we had to think about; sending me to the school I could see out my bedroom window was a thought that never crossed my parents’ minds. My family had abandoned the idea of public education decades before I was born. My dad and his brothers and sisters were some of the first black kids to integrate the city’s white Catholic schools. I went to Isidore Newman School, a private school where tuition and fees surpassed the $20,000-a-year mark and where, in 2006, I was one of seven black students in a graduating class of over 100.

I can see the intuitive appeal of using money the government would otherwise spend on public schools to allow families to escape to private schools of their choice. It’s the central tenet of President Trump’s plan to reform American education: Give more families access to the kind of school choice that has always existed in America for those who can afford it.

Then I think back to that awkward drive home years ago, and the subtle alienation I felt growing up in a suspended state between the neighborhood in which I lived and the one where I spent all of my time, without having a solid footing in either. I live in New York now, but as part of my job as an education reporter, I often return home — to a city where I don’t quite feel at home. I can appreciate Treme’s history as one of the first black neighborhoods in the country, but I don’t have the kind of deep love of its customs, its music, its street culture that my mom and grandmother share. And while I spent much of my childhood hanging out Uptown, I no longer feel much of a connection to that neighborhood either. School choice by its very nature uproots its customers from their communities, increasing the proportion of Americans without any stake in what’s going on in public schools, the schools that will always serve the children most in need of attention.

School choice also raises larger questions about why the government funds education at all. I grew up in a town where the philosophical commitment to creating a system of public schools to enhance the public good had largely been abandoned. And what worries me about the school programs championed by the new administration in Washington, especially private school vouchers, is that this mindset will spread. These programs give a huge advantage to kids with parents who have the wherewithal to navigate complex systems. Instead of spreading opportunity, vouchers ration it and cement the divide between the haves and have-nots. They also create unnecessary competition between schools.

Related: What happens when two separate and unequal school districts merge?

Take Milwaukee as an example. In 1990, Milwaukee parents were given a choice that no other families in the country had: They could send their children to private schools for free with taxpayer-funded vouchers. It was an idea born partially in the black community. Annette Polly Williams, sometimes called the mother of the school choice movement, was dismayed by the public school options available to her four children. The Mississippi native had sent them instead to Urban Day Academy, a mostly black private school that ended at eighth grade, and was looking for a high school for her oldest daughter. The city was still under court order to desegregate, which meant whites had a much better shot of gaining a seat at the predominantly black schools in her neighborhood. Williams completed the high school assignment form but didn’t get a single one of her choices.  She and other black activists wanted schools outside of the public system that they could create and control. Allying with suburban white conservatives, Williams and her coalition fought for and helped pass the most sweeping school choice law at the time.

Milwaukee’s school choice program exemplifies what President Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, are trying to replicate nationwide. Last year, as Trump made repeat visits to Milwaukee’s suburbs, he promised to bring order and prosperity to cities like Milwaukee. In one speech, he railed against the city’s public schools pointing out that “55 public schools in this city have been rated as failing” and “there is only a 60 percent graduation rate, and it’s one of the worst public school systems in the country.” He went on to blame the city’s Democratic leadership for this abysmal performance, failing to mention that the poor ratings and graduation results follow nearly three decades in which the city has embraced his central education reform platform: vouchers. Indeed, Milwaukee’s kids perform no better than their peers in similarly long-struggling districts where families have far less choice.

Inside the city limits, residents are now trying to deal with a long list of woes that people there say competition has only exacerbated.

The hope was that vouchers would not only benefit the students opting for private schools, but that the competition from private schools would also force the city’s long-struggling public schools to improve. The program never managed to achieve either of its goals.

Now, the nation’s oldest voucher program lets nearly 28,000 students attend private, mostly religious voucher schools, while another 76,000 children attend district schools and 7,000 go to public charter schools. Last year, 27 percent of students attending voucher schools passed state reading tests, compared to 26 percent at district schools and just over a third at charter schools. The math scores are even more discouraging, with just 16 percent of voucher and public school students passing state tests.

There are high-performing voucher schools, but many of those schools have rigid admissions deadlines, don’t offer free transportation and some mandate parental involvement, such as attendance at parent-teacher conferences — something that can be difficult for parents without reliable transportation. That means these schools are less likely to enroll the kids with the greatest need and more likely to enroll those with the savviest parents.

All of this competition has also resulted in both public and private schools fighting for students, even as the city’s student population continues to decline. Urban Day Academy, the school Williams championed, closed its doors last year after converting from a traditional private school to one heavily dependent on vouchers, and finally to a charter school, without ever finding a way to make the numbers work.

When the Wisconsin Legislature started the Milwaukee voucher program, lawmakers included money for an experimental study to compare results for low-income students in the private schools to those still in public schools. Despite finding no significant difference between the two systems, they decided to continue the voucher program, but stop funding the research. After three decades of competition, Milwaukee schools — public district, voucher, and charter collectively — perform about as well as similar high-poverty voucher-free urban districts like Detroit, Memphis and Buffalo. In fact, many voucher supporters around the country have stopped arguing that private schools will improve outcomes, and instead contend that being able to choose a private school is akin to a fundamental right.

Related: Lessons from NOLA: Ailing Mississippi district should be wary of charter schools

Milwaukee’s leaders now think collaboration, not competition, will be the only way to improve the city’s diffuse network of district, charter and voucher schools. Three years ago, they founded an initiative called Milwaukee Succeeds, which is aimed at bringing together leaders from across the city’s various school “sectors.” The program focuses on eight problems, including the number of city children who are up to date on their vaccinations, the number of high quality preschool programs in the city, how many Milwaukee students pass third grade math and reading tests, and how many complete high school, go on to college, and eventually get a degree. The goal is to find pockets of success, where students are making progress on each issue, and replicate these strategies in other schools. Tom Barrett, the city’s longtime mayor, called Milwaukee Succeeds “the most serious effort that I’ve seen in decades to bring all the different factions of the community together.”

One place where working together seems to be working is Gwen T. Jackson Elementary School. Jackson is located in the 53206 Zip code, an area long synonymous with Milwaukee’s biggest problems. Two-thirds of children there live in poverty. According to a 2012 study, despite all the choices theoretically available to them, 100 percent of black students in the area attend hyper-segregated schools, where they make up at least 90 percent of the student body. Kanika Burks, the principal at Jackson, has tried to make it an oasis. She’s painted the walls warm earth tones and is herself a calming presence — on the day I visited, she was comforting a family that had been in a car accident a few blocks away.

Milwaukee Succeeds has successfully piloted a program at Jackson called Transformative Reading Instruction, in which coaches give teachers simple tips on bolstering students’ reading skills and dealing with behavior management issues. When Burks saw that students in the program were making progress, she went back to Milwaukee Succeeds and asked for help addressing students’ social and emotional needs. Milwaukee Succeeds paired the school with a group called Growing Minds., which focuses on mindfulness.

According to Milwaukee Succeeds data, the reading program boosted scores, and teachers using Growing Minds reported that students are better able to regulate emotions. Burks is excited at the prospect that the work on social-emotional issues tested at Jackson will be picked up by other schools in her hometown. “Before, we had more tantrums,” she says, “ Teachers were very stressed out, saying ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Now we say, ‘Okay, let’s stop take a breath and collaborate.’”

While Burk’s school and Milwaukee still have a very long way to go to provide its students, particularly poor black and brown kids, a high quality education,  I left the city feeling inspired that a community as large and diverse as Milwaukee is trying to band together and look out for what’s best for all children. Still, when it comes to our own kids, the urge to ignore the public interest — and the research — is strong. Americans elected a president who seems to value, above all else, competition and winning. It will require more than a few local efforts like the one in Milwaukee to make the American school system more inclusive and fair; it will require a much larger cultural shift and an about-face from government at all levels.

Related: In a city still struggling with segregation, a popular charter school fights to remain diverse

But I recognize it is hard to cede advantages — a difficulty that plays a role in the argument for vouchers. It’s a dynamic I see at work in my own family.

Not long before my trip to Milwaukee, I flew to Los Angeles for my niece’s first birthday. It was a cowboy-themed affair at a play space my half-brother and sister-in-law had rented out on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. A few nights before the party, the three of us talked about schools over Thai food. As my brother and his wife went down their list of options for my niece, a pattern quickly emerged. They were only considering private schools where she would be surrounded by rich white kids. As an education reporter with access to the latest research, I knew that no matter what school my niece attends, she’ll likely excel, given her parents’ resources. But I didn’t even think of suggesting that they look into their local public school. I want the very best money can buy for this child whose future I am already dreaming about, and worrying over. And yet, my relatives — middle class, well-connected parents — would be assets to their local public school.

When making these kinds of decisions, families around the country often opt for individual gain in a way that collectively erodes the public good. When a child’s future is involved, questions of broad social policy go out the window. Although my niece is the fourth generation in our family to be born into relative comfort, she is a black child; her connection to privilege can still feel too tenuous to risk.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Race and Equity.

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Emmanuel Felton

Emmanuel Felton is a staff writer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, he covered education, juvenile justice and child services for the New York World.… See Archive

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