Calling school vouchers and other so-called “school choice” privatization efforts a “civil rights issue” is worse than spreading a simple political lie. It is an affront to the real civil rights heroes who lost their lives and freedom in the war against Jim Crow and to thousands of children of color who were deprived of decent educational opportunities before and during that era. The first vouchers actually were used to prolong school segregation as local officials in the South chose to circumvent, rather than comply with, court orders to integrate public schools.
But the “school choice-civil rights” claim has been made in recent years by, among others, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Sen. Ted Cruz and President Donald Trump. In a particularly offensive bit of timing, Trump called “school choice” the “civil rights statement of the year” at a White House briefing at the height of the demonstrations against police brutality following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in police custody.
Economist Milton Friedman usually is credited with the privatized “school choice” idea for education, which he explained in an essay published in 1955. But as recounted in a report published by the Center for American Progress, southern segregationists first put the idea into general practice. The first voucher system was believed to have been created by the Virginia General Assembly after the board of supervisors of Prince Edward County refused to levy local school taxes for the 1959-60 school year. The supervisors closed the school system, rather than integrate it, a few years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling of 1954.
The General Assembly called the new voucher system a “tuition grant program,” which offered elementary students $125 and high school students $150 to attend a nonsectarian private school or a high school in a nearby community. About the same time, private citizens raised the money to build and operate a private school, the Prince Edward Academy, to educate white children. It would become known as the first “segregation academy” and serve as a model for similar academies that soon would sprout up across the South. Black children were not allowed to attend this new academy or receive tuition grants to attend other schools.
Within a few years, after students protested against the public school closures, black and white community members in Prince Edward County agreed on a plan to temporarily operate free private schools for black students, which white students could attend. Private donations, including a contribution from the National Education Association, helped operate these Prince Edward Free Schools, as the black schools were called.
When the Supreme Court forced Prince Edward County to reopen its public schools in 1964, the board of supervisors appropriated $189,000 for the integrated public schools and $375,000 for tuition grants (vouchers) that white children could use in private schools in the county or public schools charging tuition outside the county.
By 1969, according to the American Prospect report, more than 200 private segregation academies had been set up across the South, and seven states – Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana – had voucher programs encouraging white students to leave integrated public schools. Between the 1969-70 and 1970-71 school years alone, tens of thousands of white students enrolled in the segregation academies.
Eventually, the federal courts ended those programs. But the report noted, “Even contemporary race-neutral voucher programs can have the effect of exacerbating racial and socio-economic segregation.” And voucher programs as well as cherry-picking corporate charter schools take tax dollars from under-funded public schools, where the vast majority of students of all races and ethnicities are educated.
This isn’t a civil rights issue. It’s a hijacking spree.