Why the racist history of school vouchers matters today

Elizabeth Warren alluded to the disturbing roots of school vouchers. But what did she mean?

President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with his pick for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during a rally, in Grand Rapids, Mich., Friday, Dec. 9, 2016 CREDIT: Paul Sancya
President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with his pick for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during a rally, in Grand Rapids, Mich., Friday, Dec. 9, 2016 CREDIT: Paul Sancya

On Monday, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren wrote a scathing letter to President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, questioning whether she had the expertise to run the department. Among Warren’s many criticisms of DeVos’ record — her unknown views on many aspects of higher education and civil rights issues, for example — Warren also mentioned the “racially charged history” of voucher programs.

Warren wrote:

“After Brown v. Board of Education and the court-ordered segregation of public schools, many Southern states established voucher schemes to allow white students to leave the education system and take taxpayer dollars with them, decimating the budgets of the public school districts. Today’s voucher schemes can be just as harmful to public school district budgets, because they often leave school districts with less funding to teach the most disadvantaged students, while funneling private dollars to unaccountable private schools that are not held to the same academic or civil rights standards as public schools.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, several southern states embraced resistance to integration through the opening of private schools that became known as “segregation academies.” Governors in Virginia and North Carolina supported the closure of entire school districts that were ordered to integrate and use of private school vouchers as a way to push against integration.

Erica Frankenberg, associate professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies in the College of Education at Pennsylvania State University, said that although white students were affected by district closures, they had far more educational opportunities than black families left without a school district.

“Imagine all public schools in a district shutting down for a year or two and not having a school kids could go to,” Frankenburg said. Obviously for families that didn’t have the means, which predominantly fell to the black community because they didn’t have the power and the money to fund their own schools, there was a question of what do you do with your kids and how do you keep educating them?”

“There was a question of what do you do with your kids and how do you keep educating them?”

In Virginia, Gov. Thomas B. Stanley proposed the Stanley Plan, which was enacted in 1956. It allowed the governor to close any school under a segregation order, gave the state the ability to keep funding from desegregated schools, and gave grants and tuition subsidies to students in order to keep districts segregated. It was part of the Massive Resistance, a strategy used by Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd and other Virginia political figures to oppose school integration efforts. In the mid-60s, Massive Resistance was on its last breath since the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, but tax-funded tuition grants for students who wanted to leave public schools to attend private schools helped to maintain segregation.

The marks of school segregation are still visible in Prince Edward County, where the county closed the public schools rather than comply with desegregation. The illiteracy rate is higher than the state average and school enrollment continues to decline, as Kristen Green wrote in The Atlantic. Green explained that private schools without playgrounds and cafeterias showed how far white parents were willing to go to maintain segregation.

Frankenberg said that the choice by conservatives to use a civil rights context to justify their free market approach to improving schools doesn’t match the reality vouchers’ effect on students of color today. She also argues that some supporters of vouchers argued that the idea of a vouchers providing a school market place— which Milton Friedman introduced in the 1950s— would not endanger the rights of black students to a quality education, just as voucher supporters claim today.

“In the ’50s and ’60s south, they would say African Americans are free to go wherever they wanted with their voucher too — that that was not being provided on a racial basis. Well that might have been the case, but there weren’t private schools that were going to take African American students back then at the heyday of resistance,” Frankenberg said. “So there is this assumption that there will be a market and the market will solve the problem but it only effectively did for one group of students and on a segregated basis. Vouchers and the market provided a barrier for African Americans to continue their education. We have quite frankly very similar things happening today.”

In 1958, the Warren County, Va., PTA voted down a resolution to request the school board and county supervisors to ask Gov. Lindsay Almond to reopen the school. Approved, however was the appointment of a citizens’ committee to consider plans for interim schooling. (AP Photo)
In 1958, the Warren County, Va., PTA voted down a resolution to request the school board and county supervisors to ask Gov. Lindsay Almond to reopen the school. Approved, however was the appointment of a citizens’ committee to consider plans for interim schooling. (AP Photo)

North Carolina, has had a voucher program since 2014, which is opposed by the North Carolina NAACP. In 1964, there were 83 private schools with a total enrollment of 9,500 students in the state, according to NC Policy Watch, a public policy think tank in North Carolina. But when the government really began to enforce school segregation, from 1968 to 1974, the number of private schools increased from 174 to 263 schools with more than 50,000 students. As of 2014, many private schools in neighborhoods where the majority people are African American were 95-percent to 99-percent white, according to NC Policy Watch.

The North Carolina NAACP noted this history of segregation in its brief challenging the constitutionality of North Carolina’s voucher program. In 1956, the North Carolina General Assembly’s education committee said it was be “foolhardy” to defy the U.S. Supreme Court, but defended segregation in its committee report. The report read, “If the prevails ignorance in either race, our economy will stall, our society will seethe, and our democracy will degenerate… Children do best in a school with their own race.”

The governor urged the legislature to do everything it could, legally, to prevent white students from attending integrated schools. In turn, legislators allowed school districts that were ordered to desegregate to close all of its schools and gave vouchers to students in those districts so that they could attend private schools. The North Carolina NAACP argues that the current voucher plan deprives both private school students and public school students of a racially diverse student body.

These kinds of efforts to resist desegregation were eventually recognized as unconstitutional, but not before they significantly hampered the enforcement of school integration and left a permanent mark on those communities. Voucher plans as they exist now, however, also work to exacerbate segregation, even though that may not be the intention of the policy. Qualitative studies looking at white, affluent parents find that they tend to choose schools based on the reputation of people they know, who are like themselves, rather than basing school choice on visits to the school or publicly available data on the school. These studies also show that white families are more likely to leave the traditional public school system or school zones that have higher proportions of students of color.

“It’s easy to see how it looks like an answer. But it’s not a real answer.”

Thus, schools competing for these white, more affluent families have incentives to keep disadvantaged students out of their schools. In cases of school choice programs where students have free transportation and schools have diversity goals and outreach programs, integrated schools are easier to achieve. But without those protections, school choice does not promote better opportunities for students of color, according to Frankenberg and University of California, Los Angeles distinguished research professor Gary Orfield’s 2013 book, Education Delusions? Why Choice Can Deepen Inequality and How to Make Schools Fair.

In addition to creating incentives for advantaged families to leave public schools, school choice programs don’t provide enough money to truly benefit low-income families, Frankenburg said, because the private school tuition is often much higher than what is offered through vouchers. North Carolina’s average school voucher value is $4,116.

“If you want the market to work, you have to provide the market rate, and that’s not something any governmental program has done on a large-scale basis,” Frankenberg said. “You can’t presume schools are going to accept kids, especially kids with special educational needs. If they don’t want to, they don’t have to. And then you also have the issue of the voucher often not being enough for the tuition. It’s easy to see how it looks like an answer. But it’s not a real answer.”

To be sure, there were advocates of vouchers who were concerned about issues of access to education for disadvantaged students in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Christopher Jencks, Theodore Sizer, and Phillip Whitten. James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School, explained that history in his 2005 Georgetown Law Journal piece on school choice.

The idea of seeking alternatives to public schools, especially schools where there were black teachers for black students, was championed by community control advocates on the left, Forman wrote. Sizer and Whitten wrote, “A Proposal for a Poor Children’s Bill of Rights” for Psychology Today, which explained that vouchers could “weight the education scales in favor of the poor for the next generation” under the right conditions. One part of the proposal required that supplementary grants should be large enough that schools were motivated to compete for it. American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker argued Jencks’ voucher proposal, which introduced the idea of bonus vouchers to promote integration, would be watered down and eventually morph into the conservative model for vouchers. Conservatives weren’t on board either, since they wanted a model with fewer regulations.

With those efforts’ emphasis on better civil rights protections, the Trump–DeVos approach to vouchers doesn’t have a connection to the ’60s and ’70s vision for school choice, Frankenberg said.

“There have been some cases of people using vouchers for more civil rights aims but by and large, when I look at DeVos and Trump’s platform, I think of Milton Friedman,” she said. “When you look at his writings, there are so many strong echoes of what I see in the platform right now.”