By Paige Duggins-Clay, J.D. • Knowledge is Power • February 7, 2023 •
Vouchers and other school privatization initiatives are harmful, anti-democratic policies that funnel communities’ hard-earned tax dollars into unregulated, unaccountable institutions and divert resources away from schools serving the vast majority of children served by our nation’s public schools.
This is by design.
As James Anderson writes in The Education of Blacks in the South, “Both schooling for democratic citizenship and schooling for second-class citizenship have been basic traditions in American education… both were fundamental American conceptions of society and progress, occupied the same time and space, were fostered by the same governments, and usually were embraced by the same leaders.”
Historically, state and school leaders have used vouchers and other so-called “school choice” initiatives to perpetuate second-class citizenship for Black children.
In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, those opposed to desegregation “capitalized on the distinction between universal public school access and controlled private school access as a means to subvert the court’s directive to dismantle segregation with ‘deliberate speed’” (Mead 2012).
These measures were particularly prevalent in the South, where state and school district leaders turned to the misleading rhetoric of school “choice” to maintain segregation.
For example, school officials in Prince Edward County, Virginia, chose to close all public schools and provide vouchers to private schools, which they knew would be limited and segregated. Referred to as “choice academies,” these plans constituted southern school district’s first efforts to resist the mandate of Brown, and were implemented in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia.
Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated these programs in the landmark lawsuit Griffin v. County School Bd. of Prince Edward County. Similarly, five years later the court struck down a “freedom of choice” plan that “allowed students to select which public school they wished to attend” in a historically segregated community in Virginia. Specifically, the Court in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County held that school officials had an obligation to take “affirmative steps to desegregate public schools” and that relying on “parental choice” was an “insufficient response to the constitutional injury” established in Brown.
Particularly illustrative, in a 1954 amicus brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown II, then-Texas Attorney General Jon Shepperd invoked the rhetoric of “school choice” in crafting his plea for a “gradual adjustment” to the court’s desegregation order (Shepperd 1954). Brown II was decided in 1955 and was meant to give directives to states and school districts about the implementation and timing of the desegregation orders from the first Brown decision.
Arguing in the amicus brief that “integration can no more be compelled than can segregation,” the former Texas Attorney General laid out several examples of how the State would evade full implementation of integration. The proposed plans included the “complete abolition of the free public school system,” “turning the state schools into private schools,” and repealing “the section of the law which provides for compulsory education,” so that if parents desired, they “could select a school in which the majority of the other pupils are of the same race as the child, or… in which the other pupils are of both races, thereby providing equality of opportunity and freedom of individual choice.”
Contemporary calls for “school choice,” “parental rights,” and the ultimate policy objective of funneling public tax dollars to private schools bear a chilling resemblance to the discriminatory policies of the not-so-distant past.
Many Black and other parents of color today are the children or grandchildren of the Brown generation of schoolchildren on the front lines of our nation’s first efforts to achieve integration. These parents are not fooled by the false promises of voucher proponents who simultaneously push censorship policies that have led to attacks on curriculum, training and programming, which disproportionately impact Black and other historically marginalized communities.
The evidence is clear: Despite the claims of proponents, research shows that voucher and other privatization programs tend to increase racial segregation. As IDRA has previously stated, “This should be very concerning for policymakers because decreased racial segregation has been found to benefit both minority students and white students academically, socially and emotionally” (IDRA 2017; Seigel-Hawley, 2012).
Eradicating the vestiges of our slave-holding and segregationist past should be a priority for all who have the privilege of developing education policy for our state and local communities. Policymakers must not stick their heads in the stand and ignore the indisputable connection between vouchers and opposition to integration and instead should vigorously oppose all efforts to weaken our nation’s public schools.
Anderson, J.D. (1988). The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. University of North Carolina Press.
Hinojosa, D. (March 21, 2017). Vouchers with No Real Safeguards and No Civil Rights Protections are “Civil Wrongs,” testimony. IDRA.
Brown v. Board of Education, Br. of John Ben Shepperd, Attorney General of Texas, Amicus Curiae, 1954 WL 45721 (U.S.), 17 (1954).
Mead, J.F. (2012). How Legislation and Litigation Shape School Choice. In Exploring the School Choice Universe: Evidence and Recommendations, 39-64, 39. https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/books/270/