Don't Forget that "School Choice" Originated in Massive Resistance to DesegregationRoundup
tags: conservatism, neoliberalism, school choice, School Desegregation, education history
Nancy MacLean is William H. Chafe distinguished professor of history and public policy at Duke University and author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.
The year 2021 has proved a landmark for the “school choice” cause — a movement committed to the idea of providing public money for parents to use to pay for private schooling.
Republican control of a majority of state legislatures, combined with pandemic learning disruptions, set the stage for multiple victories. Seven states have created new school choice programs, and 11 others have expanded current programs through laws that offer taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schooling and authorize tax credits and educational savings accounts that incentivize parents moving their children out of public schools.
On its face, this new legislation may sound like a win for families seeking more school options. But the roots of the school choice movement are more sinister.
White Southerners first fought for “freedom of choice” in the mid-1950s as a means of defying the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which mandated the desegregation of public schools. Their goal was to create pathways for White families to remove their children from classrooms facing integration.
Prominent libertarians then took advantage of this idea, seeing it not only as a means of providing private options, but also as a tool in their crusade to dismantle public schools altogether. This history reveals that rather than giving families more school options, school choice became a tool intended to give most families far fewer in the end.
School choice had its roots in a crucial detail of the Brown decision: The ruling only applied to public schools. White Southerners viewed this as a loophole for evading desegregated schools.
In 1955 and 1956, conservative White leaders in Virginia devised a regionwide strategy of “massive resistance” to the high court’s desegregation mandate that hinged on state-funded school vouchers. The State Board of Education provided vouchers, then called tuition grants, of $250 ($2,514 in 2021 dollars) to parents who wanted to keep their children from attending integrated schools. The resistance leaders understood that most Southern White families could not afford private school tuition — and many who could afford it lacked the ideological commitment to segregation to justify the cost. The vouchers, combined with private donations to the new schools in counties facing desegregation mandates, would enable all but a handful of the poorest Whites to evade compliance.
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