Public Schools

Let’s not forget: School vouchers were created to prop up racial segregation in the South

  Rob Boston

This week marks the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that struck down racial segregation in America’s public schools.

Anyone who is familiar with our country’s troubled racial history knows what followed that ruling: “Massive resistance” in Southern states, violence, National Guard troops escorting children into public schools and, in some areas, the closure of public schools.

But there was another tactic in the segregationists’ toolkit that tends to get overlooked today: private school voucher schemes. As the online Encyclopedia Brittanica noted, after Arkansas closed public high schools in Little Rock, “Other Southern cities followed suit, often implementing ‘school choice’ programs that subsidized white students’ attendance at private segregated academies, which were not covered by the Brown ruling. As a result, many Southern schools remained almost completely segregated until the late 1960s.”

Vouchers used to buttress segregation

In his 2020 book Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy Of The Modern School Choice Movement, Steve Suitts, adjunct professor at the Institute for Liberal Arts at Emory University, outlined the steps Southern states took to use vouchers as a way to dodge integration.

“From 1954 to 1965, Southern legislatures enacted as many as 450 laws and resolutions attempting to discredit, block, postpone, limit, or evade school desegregation,” Suitts wrote. “A large number of these acts allowed the re-direction of public resources, including school resources, to benefit private schools.”

These included:

Georgia: Voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing taxpayer funds to subsidize “education purposes,” a scheme designed to pave the way for vouchers.

Mississippi: Voters passed a constitutional amendment giving the legislature the power to close public schools and direct public funding to private ones.

North Carolina: The legislature passed eight bills to close public schools and authorize vouchers.

South Carolina: Voters repealed a section of the state constitution that provided for a “liberal system of free public schools” – a first step toward establishing taxpayer-funded private schools.

Virginia: The legislature called for “freedom of choice” in education and enacted a voucher plan; in some counties, public schools were closed.

Suitts noted that some Southern states went so far as to propose or pass measures allowing the states to allocate public funds to build private schools.

Vouchers reborn as ‘school choice’

By 1965, Suitts wrote, seven states had enacted voucher plans to evade integration. Most of these were struck down by federal courts that recognized them as efforts to ignore the Brown ruling. But it wasn’t long before vouchers, repacked as “school choice,” resurfaced and were being proposed nationwide by anti-government activists, Christian fundamentalists, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and  others. Voucher advocates even had the gall to pitch vouchers to Black Americans, arguing that public schools, which voucher boosters had spent decades undermining, weren’t doing a good job serving them.

In an interview with Church & State, Suitts explained how voucher plans continue to prop up segregation today: “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.”

Yes, it is – one that has grown since Suitts wrote his book because now 32 states and Washington, D.C., have voucher programs. And it’s a problem that we will not solve without a national recommitment to the twin pillars of American democracy: public education and separation of church and state.

Photo: A member of the National Guardsmen escorts a student to school in Little Rock, Ark. By Paul Slade/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

Act Now