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.
“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.”
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.”