“Vouchers drain money from public schools so that some students can go to private schools.” Somewhere in the vicinity of that declarative sentence—which school choice critics regard as some sort of argument—lurks the thought that vouchers must equal special advantages for some students that are denied to others. Guess what? That’s what the system of public schools is. A new report from the Fordham Foundation has identified 2,817 public schools around the country that serve very few poor students. These “private public schools,” as the Fordham report calls them, are either elementary schools where students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches make up less than 5 percent of the school’s enrollment, or middle schools or high schools where fewer than 3 percent of students are reported to be poor. Nationwide, 44 percent of public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. In total, these “private public schools” serve 4 percent of all public school students.
These schools also tend to be racially segregated. Nationwide, 17 percent of primary school students are African-American and 21 percent are Hispanic. But in the 2,817 “private public schools” identified by Fordham, only 3 percent of students are African-American and only 12 percent are Hispanic. It’s not an accident that so many public schools end up with skewed demographics. As the authors of the report, Michael Petrilli and Janie Scull, point out, these schools are exclusionary in practice because of public policies that tend to sort people into neighborhoods according to their incomes. Remember, to attend a public school, a student must live within that school’s district boundaries.
It should be obvious that there is a public policy option that is ready-made to provide opportunities for children in poor neighborhoods to attend a better school: school choice. Those who want a more inclusive school system should support school choice. And they should ask the 2,817 “private public schools” identified by Fordham why they won’t accept poor kids with a scholarship—like truly private schools do.
See “America’s Private Public Schools,” by Michael J. Petrilli and Janie Scull, published by the Fordham Foundation, February 2010.