No, private school vouchers aren’t racist
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.