Dennis Persica: Study raises questions about vouchers

A curious study was released last week, attempting to shed some light on the issues raised by the U.S. Justice Department’s recent legal challenge to Louisiana’s school voucher program.

The study, by a Ph.D. candidate and a doctoral fellow at the University of Arkansas, examines the “Louisiana scholarship program” — that is, the voucher program. The study was published on the EducationNext website, which reports on education “reform.”

I put that word in quotes not to cast doubt on EducationNext’s motivation, but simply because what constitutes reform — which implies an improvement over what existed before it — is a matter of debate.

The authors of the study write that, “Evidence suggests that use of private school vouchers by low-income students actually has positive effects on racial integration.”

Their definition of “positive effects” is one of the more curious things about this study.

“For example, if an African American student leaves a school that is more African American than its surrounding community, we would say this transfer has improved integration at the prior school,” Anna J. Egalite and Jonathan N. Mills write.

So, for example, at a school where African-American students make up 80 percent of the enrollment but the community is 65 percent African-American, then losing a handful of black students to voucher transfers “improves” integration, according to the study’s definition.”

The study says: “Transfers made possible by the school-choice program overwhelmingly improve integration in the public schools that students leave.”

However, even using that strange definition of what “improves” integration, the study concedes that more than two-thirds of the voucher transfers of white students out of public schools do not improve integration. The study also says the transfers have little impact on the racial composition of the private schools where the voucher students wind up.

Another oddity of the report is the fact that it uses the Census Bureau’s Core Based Statistical Area to determine the racial makeup of the area in which a school resides.

For New Orleans, the CBSA is known as the New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner CBSA. It includes not only the communities named in its title but also several suburban parishes.

We all know how racial makeup flips when you cross parish lines, so averaging them all into one number against which to compare the ethnic composition of a particular school is beyond silly.

We shouldn’t forget that, according to the Justice Department’s petition, 24 Louisiana school districts are still under court supervision in desegregation cases. The department’s position is that the use of vouchers in those districts should first be approved by the judges presiding over those cases.

So if the Justice Department prevails in its challenge, the courts ultimately would be the arbiters who decide whether the voucher program has a positive or negative effect on school integration.

There’s no doubt that vouchers are popular among the low-income families they are meant to serve. If they weren’t, there wouldn’t be such a demand for them.

The main problem is that there aren’t enough vouchers, and not enough openings in reputable private schools for the voucher students. As a result, too many students are still left behind in terrible public schools.

Given that drawback, some could reasonably argue that it makes more sense to concentrate on improving public schools rather than taking only some students — and taxpayer money — away.

It’s a complicated issue worthy of discussion, but this study doesn’t do much to add to that debate in any meaningful way.

Dennis Persica writes about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. His email address is dpersica@theadvocate.com.