In this article, published in Dissent, Leo Casey examines the racist origins of the voucher movement. Casey is executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, which is a think tank and policy advocacy arm of the American Federation of Teachers. Casey taught in the New York City public schools and was an officer of the United Federation of Teachers.
In recent weeks, the issue of private school vouchers has taken center stage in debates over the future of American education. Policy proposals to use public funds for private school tuition vouchers have a long history, dating back to a seminal 1955 essay by Milton Friedman. Over the last twenty-five years, small voucher programs have been established in several states, including Indiana, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin, as well as in Washington, D.C.
But the voucher issue took on a new urgency after the election of Donald Trump, given his campaign promise to establish a $20 billion national voucher program. When Trump unveiled his first proposed budget earlier this year, he partnered his program with massive cuts to existing federal education programs, taken largely from funding streams that support the education of students living in poverty. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, is a long-time partisan of vouchers and has been cheerleader in chief for Trump’s education budget cuts and proposed voucher program…
Following the Brown decision, white Southern leaders determined to resist. Nowhere was that resistance more extreme than in Prince Edward County in Virginia:
With the backing of Virginia’s powerful segregationist senator Harry F. Byrd, the white elite of Prince Edward County defied the Brown decision by closing the entire public school system and diverting public education funds into vouchers to be used at a segregated private academy that only white students could attend. As the battles over the implementation of Brown played out, African-American students were denied access to education for five years in a row. Prince Edward County thus stands as an exemplar of the post-Brown segregationist defiance of school integration and the pivotal role of school vouchers in that effort.
An honest appraisal of the events in Prince Edward County poses a major challenge for voucher advocates. This history is thoroughly documented, both in historian Richard Kluger’s authoritative study of Brown and its aftermath and in two excellent scholarly books on the specific events in Prince Edward County, by Christopher Bonastia and Jill Ogline Titus respectively. There is simply no denying the historical connection between the birth of private school voucher policies and segregationist defiance to Brown. But Prince Edward County is only the beginning of the story.
The intellectual guru of the voucher movement was libertarian economist Milton Friedman. His seminal essay on vouchers was published in 1955, at the same time that southerners were thinking up the best ways to defy the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision.
Writing a year after the Brown decision, with segregationist defiance in full bloom, Friedman’s essay explicitly addresses the question of vouchers and school segregation in a lengthy footnote. Readers may be aware that the voucher proposal “has recently been suggested in several southern states as a means of evading the Supreme Court ruling against segregation” and conclude that this is a reason to oppose them, Friedman begins.
But having reflected on this subject, he has decided otherwise.
Friedman’s argument stakes out three positions that most readers will find on their face incongruent. First, he declares: “I deplore segregation and racial prejudice.” Second, though, he avows his opposition to the “forced nonsegregation” of public schools, by which he means the desegregation of public schools that has just been mandated by Brown. Striking a strange posture of neutrality in the great historic battle to abolish Jim Crow segregation that was opened with Brown, he proclaims that he is also opposed to “forced segregation.” Rather, he seeks a third way: the privatization of public education through vouchers. And finally, Friedman contends that in this system of vouchers, parents should be free to send their children to any private school they choose, including “exclusively white schools.” Once public funds are put in private hands in the form of vouchers, he argues, it would be wrong to prohibit their use in support of racially segregated education.
This last position is precisely the posture that enabled and protected segregationist defiance of Brown in Prince Edward County and throughout the South. Indeed, in his book Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman offers explicit approval of the Virginia law that authorized school vouchers, including those used in Prince Edward County, arguing implausibly that it would have the unintended effect of undermining racial segregation. In fact, the law had precisely the intended effect. For the five years before the Supreme Court ruled that Prince Edward County public schools must be reopened, African-American students were deprived of all education, while white students attended a segregated white academy. After Prince Edward County’s public schools were reopened in 1964, they were underfunded (the county spent twice as much on vouchers as it did on its public schools) and only a handful of white students attended them; the great preponderance of white students used vouchers to attend the segregated Prince Edward Academy. In 1969, the courts finally struck down the Virginia voucher law Friedman supported, ruling that it permitted the continuance of racially segregated education.
Casey goes on to analyze Friedman’s views about vouchers and the freedom of the individual to do as he wished, as compared to the government’s responsibility to provide for the common welfare.
Vouchers are Friedman’s libertarian political philosophy in action—educational freedom through privatization, replacing the public provision of education with a marketplace. Nevertheless, they depend on public subsidy: Friedman proposes turning over the public funds used for education to individuals, creating an exclusive property right to use those funds in any private school they choose. Precisely because he sees private school vouchers as a property right, he is unwilling to limit how they may be used: their bearers must be free to choose racially segregated schools. In this ideological vision, one turns a blind eye to the damage done to the education of African-American students by segregated schools—damage that vouchers actively perpetuated post-Brown—even when it stares you in the face.
Vouchers, Casey argues, are multipliers of inequality, as are similar efforts to privatize public provision of public goods and services:
The unregulated market in which Friedman places all his trust is an inequality multiplier. This effect is most readily observed in income inequality and concentrations of wealth, but it is no less present around other axes of inequality, notably around race and around gender. After the end of de jure racial segregation and the desegregation of the public sector in areas such as health care and education, the historic exploitation of African Americans persisted in other forms, including discrimination in the marketplace in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Without government regulation of markets, without the enforceable prohibition of discrimination, there are only a few, limited restraints on that exploitation. Moreover, to the extent that one transforms the public provision of public goods, such as education, into unregulated markets—as Friedman proposed to do with school vouchers—one expands the ways in which racial discrimination may be exercised. To address the inequality multiplier effect of the marketplace—including the inequality born of the historic oppression of African Americans—one needs both government regulation of the marketplace and the public provision of public goods. Yet Friedman opposes both on principle. For him, government is almost always the enemy, even when it is providing positive freedoms.
Despite protestations from rightwing think tanks and policy advocates, the history of vouchers is firmly rooted in segregationist practices.
Try as privatization advocates might, there is no getting around the segregationist history of school vouchers in the United States. From Milton Friedman to the recalcitrant white elites of Prince Edward County and the legislators they voted in, the forerunners of today’s “school choice” movement understood their freedom as the freedom to deny others an equal education. That history continues into the present: empirical studies of vouchers programs in the United States and internationally show that they increase segregation in schools. As a Trump administration that openly appeals to white racial resentment proposes a massive school voucher program, we would be foolish to ignore the policy’s origins.
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