No, pri­vate school vouch­ers aren’t racist

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Ross Izard Guest Commentary

The rhetoric of parental choice op­po­nents has reached a new low fol­low­ing the re­lease of an in­cen­di­ary Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress re­port ti­tled “The Racist Ori­gins of Pri­vate School Vouch­ers.” Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers pres­i­dent Randi Wein­garten re­cently used the re­port to ar­gue that sup­port­ers of parental choice are racists guilty of sup­port­ing pro­grams that are “only slightly more po­lite cousins of seg­re­ga­tion.” This out­ra­geous claim de­serves a re­sponse.

The CAP re­port cov­ers the dis­turb­ing his­tory of in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized racism in Prince Ed­ward County, Vir­ginia, where gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials went to great lengths to re­sist pub­lic school de­seg­re­ga­tion fol­low­ing the U.S. Supreme Court’s land­mark de­ci­sion in Brown vs. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion of Topeka (1954). These of­fi­cials shut­tered the county’s pub­lic schools to pre­vent in­te­gra­tion while white stu­dents made use of state tu­ition grants to at­tend a whites-only pri­vate school. Some other com­mu­ni­ties in the south­ern United States adopted sim­i­lar ap­proaches.

Let’s not mince words. The ac­tions of these lead­ers were hideously un­just and morally rep­re­hen­si­ble, and the fact that some voucher-like pro­grams were used to sup­port such be­hav­ior is shame­ful.

Even so, fram­ing de­seg­re­ga­tion in the South as the “ori­gin” of pri­vate school choice is disin­gen­u­ous. In 1791, Thomas Paine ar­gued for a de­cen­tral­ized sys­tem of ed­u­ca­tion in which poor fam­i­lies could use ed­u­ca­tion al­lowances to ac­cess op­tions oth­er­wise un­avail­able to them. In the mid-1800s, po­lit­i­cal wars raged be­tween Protes­tants op­er­at­ing deeply re­li­gious pub­lic schools and Catholic im­mi­grants who sought fund­ing for parochial schools that did not de­mo­nize their faith.

In 1859, John Stu­art Mill ar­gued that the

gov­ern­ment “might leave it to par­ents to ob­tain the ed­u­ca­tion where and how they pleased, and con­tent it­self with help­ing to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of chil­dren, and de­fray­ing the en­tire school ex­penses of those who have no one else to pay for them.” And in 1869, Ver­mont launched the na­tion’s first pri­vate school choice pro­gram — not to pur­sue seg­re­ga­tion, but to pro­vide an ed­u­ca­tion to stu­dents in ru­ral ar­eas without ac­cess to pub­lic schools.

Mil­ton Fried­man may have re­fined and pop­u­lar­ized the ar­gu­ment for pri­vate school choice in 1955, but he did not in­vent it. Nei­ther did the big­oted lead­ers of Prince Ed­ward County.

Un­fairly as­crib­ing per­ni­cious mo­tives to mod­ern parental choice ad­vo­cates is a dou­ble-edged sword. The CAP re­port dances around the his­tor­i­cally ob­vi­ous yet uncomfortable fact that in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized racism in ed­u­ca­tion orig­i­nated not in pri­vate school choice pro­grams, but in pub­lic school sys­tems them­selves. Im­por­tantly, lead­ers in Prince Ed­ward County sought not to cre­ate school seg­re­ga­tion us­ing vouch­ers, but to per­pet­u­ate seg­re­ga­tion al­ready in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized in the pub­lic schools.

Given this trou­bling his­tory, why have anti-choice lead­ers not lev­eled ac­cu­sa­tions of racism against con­tem­po­rary pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion ad­vo­cates? Per­haps be­cause they rec­og­nize that do­ing so would be ob­vi­ously wrong­headed and un­fair in the mod­ern con­text, just as it is ob­vi­ously wrong­headed and un­fair to level those ac­cu­sa­tions against mod­ern parental choice ad­vo­cates. Or per­haps they sim­ply re­al­ize that a pa­per en­ti­tled “The Racist His­tory of Amer­i­can Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion Sys­tems” would not ad­vance their agenda.

This ug­li­ness might be ex­cus­able if it had some ba­sis in mod­ern re­al­ity, but it does not. As the CAP re­port notes in pass­ing, “al­most all” pri­vate school choice pro­grams use in­come thresh­olds to de­ter­mine el­i­gi­bil­ity, which means they tend to draw dis­pro­por­tion­ately from dis­ad­van­taged pop­u­la­tions. And while CAP cites a study find­ing that “voucher pro­grams tend to ben­e­fit the most ad­van­taged stu­dents el­i­gi­ble for the pro­grams,” we should note that de­spite the clever word­play, the most ad­van­taged dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents are still dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents.

Not­with­stand­ing ques­tion­ably rel­e­vant ev­i­dence from other nations — CAP cites re­search in Chile and Swe­den — there is a de­cided lack of em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence that pri­vate school choice pro­grams pro­mote seg­re­ga­tion in the United States. In fact, the bulk of the strong­est re­search finds that these pro­grams tend to move stu­dents from more seg­re­gated schools to less seg­re­gated schools.

Mean­while, nu­mer­ous stud­ies and re­ports have noted on­go­ing seg­re­ga­tion is­sues in pub­lic school sys­tems. These find­ings should not come as a sur­prise; noth­ing breeds seg­re­ga­tion like con­fin­ing stu­dents to schools on the ba­sis of the neigh­bor­hoods in which they live.

To as­cribe racism to the mod­ern parental choice move­ment dis­hon­ors the many mi­nor­ity lead­ers who have worked in sup­port of ed­u­ca­tional choice pro­grams across the coun­try, im­plies that the tens of thou­sands of mi­nor­ity par­ents par­tic­i­pat­ing in these pro­grams na­tion­wide are ig­no­rantly com­plicit part­ners in their own chil­dren’s op­pres­sion, and wrongly as­saults the char­ac­ter of a great many pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cates for choice on both sides of the po­lit­i­cal aisle. Most im­por­tantly, it ob­scures and dis­tracts from real, press­ing prob­lems in many com­mu­ni­ties that well-de­signed parental choice pro­grams could help al­le­vi­ate.

The sooner we put this un­pro­duc­tive and deeply of­fen­sive line of ar­gu­men­ta­tion be­hind us, the bet­ter.

Ross Izard is an ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy an­a­lyst for the In­de­pen­dence In­sti­tute, a free mar­ket think tank in Den­ver.

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