September 2020 Church & State Magazine | Books & Ideas

Editor’s Note: Steve Suitts is an adjunct professor at the Institute for Liberal Arts at Emory University. His recently published book, Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy Of The Modern School Choice Movement (NewSouth Books), examines the history of private school vouchers and explains how they were used in the South to avoid racial integration of education – and how they continue to do that today.

Suitts discussed the book recently with Church & State Editor Rob Boston.

Q. Why did you decide to write this book? Can you tell us a little about its major theme?

Suitts: I have been concerned about the role that public financing of private schools has had in defeating school desegregation for more than 40 years, beginning when I was founding director of the Alabama Civil Liberties Union and later as director of the Southern Regional Council and as vice president of the Southern Education Foundation. This book emerged out of that longstanding concern.

The book traces the history of school vouchers since they were first used widely in Southern states in attempting to defeat school desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s and explains how that legacy continues to shape perceptions, practices and policies today.

Q. Modern-day voucher advocates would likely say, “Perhaps some early voucher advocates were motivated by racism, but that’s not the case anymore.” Can you explain how voucher plans today still prop up segregation?

Suitts: It’s simple, really. Today most white students attending private schools remain in virtually segregated schools – schools where students of color represent only a token portion of the student population, usually less than 10 percent. That is exactly the pattern that developed in the late 1960s and 1970s with the aid of school vouchers. As desegregation slowly moved across the South, private schools in the region accepted a token number of students of color in order to save their federal tax exemptions. Over time, the same school patterns have persisted and now with the financing of a new era of school vouchers. Instead of only six or seven Southern states using vouchers to support these private schools, we have 26 states today with voucher programs. Once only a Southern problem, now it is a national problem.

 It also is worth noting that the arguments for vouchers today are largely the same arguments that the segregationists used to defend and promote school vouchers in the past.

Q. In the book, you discuss in detail the work of the Boutwell Committee in Alabama. What was this committee, and how are we still grappling with its legacy today?

 Suitts: The Boutwell Committee was the first segregationist strategy group in the South to develop a complete plan on how to defeat school desegregation. The plan was developed by “moderate” segregationist Albert Boutwell and Birmingham’s brilliant corporate lawyer, Forney Johnston. Their segregationist plan proposed “freedom of choice” without regard to race. It had four basic components:

•Eliminate any reference to segregation of schools. In other words, Alabama laws would “concede the right of white and negro families to send their children to mixed public schools.”

•Remove any language from the state constitution guaranteeing a right of education or any obligation of the state to fund public school­children at any level. Instead, establish a state policy to promote education “consistent with available resources … and ability of the individual student.”

•Enable local school officials to determine “eligibility, admission, and allocation of pupils, including the power to refuse admission to individuals or groups whose deficiencies in scholastic [work] would compel undue lowering of school standards…”

•Provide vouchers and other tax funds for private schools to operate on their own admission standards.

We remember in popular culture George Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door,” but the Boutwell Committee’s plan set the course for how Alabama and other Southern states slowed down and in some cases defeated school desegregation. These basic strategies apply too often to the practices and policies in schooling today.

Q. Economist Milton Friedman is considered to be the godfather of the modern voucher movement. What did Friedman have to say about the possibility that vouchers might lead to increased segregation in education?

Suitts: When Friedman wrote his first paper on school vouchers in the mid-1950s, he admitted he knew that Southern segregationists were pro­posing the same thing. And he admitted that vouchers could help them maintain and advance school segregation. But, he essentially thought that segregation was the necessary cost of freedom of choice. Some would use government vouchers to maintain or promote segregated schools. Some would not. In other words, he thought “freedom of choice” was more important than desegregation and was necessary to dismantle what he called “government schools” – a term President Trump has adopted.

One of the real tragedies of Friedman’s advocacy for vouchers is that he has given people the license to believe that “consumer choice” is an inherent good – regardless of its collective consequences or misuse.

Q. School choice advocates today often adopt the rhetoric of civil rights. They’ve even called vouchers the next civil rights struggle. What are your thoughts on claims like this?

Suitts: They are using the language of civil rights to defeat the goals of civil rights. In fact, the call for “school choice” today echoes the language of Southern segregationists who called for “freedom of choice” to evade school desegregation. And, today’s advocates are employing many of the same arguments and tactics, including vouchers, that were the prime strategies of segregationists’ attempts to overthrow the Brown v. the Board of Education decision. They mock the language of civil rights as they work to overturn civil rights.

We should remember that since the 1980s there has been a concerted effort to co-opt the language of civil rights by those who are attempting to undercut those rights. As early as 1988, the Rev. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority stood before a gathering of all-white, conservative male ministers in Atlanta and declared that “Martin Luther King is everybody’s American hero.”

Q. Many of us who have followed the voucher movement over the years believe their endgame is to privatize all secondary education in America. What effect would this have on efforts to ensure racial integration in education?

Suitts: It would end any possibility for this nation to achieve the desegregation of schools for American children – nothing less than that. It would be that simple and that profoundly tragic.

Q. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue shows how much the court has drifted from the strict separationist stance it took in the 1970s. What can we do to protect public education?

Suitts: Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court has essentially abandoned Jefferson’s “wall of separation” on matters of church and state. The challenge is to work in stopping the national and state governments from establishing voucher programs,  which the courts are now quite willing to accept as constitutional. The courts may allow voucher programs to support religious schools, which often are also largely segregated schools, but they cannot mandate them. We can protect public education by exposing how voucher programs in most states allow private schools to practice rank discrimination of all sorts – by religion, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, and many other harmful, irrational reasons. Is that the type of school system we want to finance with our tax dollars?

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Suitts: People of goodwill must keep faith with democracy. U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ last words are worth remembering in the years and dec­ades ahead: “When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community…”