Pro-voucher advocates are always looking for new excuses to push private school vouchers. Their newest excuse is a manufactured controversy over the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in K-12 schools.
But this isn’t the first time race has been explicitly used to justify vouchers. In fact, private school vouchers were first created in the 1950s as a way to preserve and exacerbate segregation. Many states adopted voucher programs after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education to avoid court-ordered integration and enable white parents to send their children to private schools now known as “segregation academies.”
It’s helpful to start by understanding what CRT is: it’s an academic framework that acknowledges systemic racism is part of American society. CRT recognizes that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice; it is embedded in laws, policies, and institutions that uphold and reproduce racial inequalities. It is most often taught in law schools—not in K-12 schools. Nonetheless, over the past year, there have been efforts across the country to ban what some have called “CRT” in K-12 schools. What these bills really do is ban lessons on race and gender discrimination, white privilege, and racial equity. At least 36 states have adopted or introduced laws or policies that restrict teaching about race, racism, and even accurate discussion of U.S. history.
The people behind these anti-CRT bills have admitted that they are part of a larger strategy to undermine our confidence in public education and advocate for privatizing education. For example, Christopher Rufo, the architect of the right-wing crusade against CRT, is “preparing a strategy of laying siege to the institutions” that will lead to parents having “a fundamental right to exit” public schools. In practice, this means using CRT to promote private school vouchers.
Nicole Russell, a contributor at the Washington Examiner, wrote that “implementing school choice solutions in every state would naturally resolve, and even possibly eradicate, issues such as critical race theory curriculum showing up in every state nationwide.” Kyle Wingfield, president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a Libertarian-leaning think tank, claimed that “controversies” over mask mandates and critical race theory” can be solved with vouchers. And just last week, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, released a report arguing that pro-voucher advocates should “emphasize cultural problems” like CRT and offer vouchers as a solution.
Unfortunately, lawmakers have adopted this strategy. State Sen. Rob Standridge (R) of Oklahoma has introduced SB 1172, which creates a “Freedom from Racial Discrimination” voucher. The name is a misnomer – it would actually give a voucher to students who oppose learning about “gender or race diversity concepts.” Lawmakers in Kansas have similarly tried to connect anti-CRT efforts to vouchers. A committee hearing on diversity and inclusion initiatives in schools began with the introduction of a school voucher bill. And on the federal level, U.S. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) introduced S. Res. 493 earlier this month. It’s a resolution that claims school vouchers can “combat destructive ideologies like Critical Race Theory.” These legislators are following Rufo’s playbook and exploiting the false controversy over CRT to push private school vouchers.
Anti-CRT vouchers would not only pressure public schools into omitting the difficult parts of our history and not teaching students that racism is wrong but would also undermine the benefits of diverse schools. Public schools bring together students from all backgrounds, races and ethnicities. Diverse schools can increase greater cultural understanding that builds empathy, increase civic participation, and actually improve academic performance. But CRT vouchers, which are targeted at white families who are upset about the possibility of their kids learning about racism, will invite white families to flee the public schools for private institutions.
Furthermore, vouchers created in response to false notions about CRT suffer from the same flaws as all voucher programs – they don’t improve student achievement, lack accountability, fund discrimination, and can exacerbate racial segregation. They also harm religious freedom because they funnel public funds primarily to private religious schools.
Instead of finding new excuses to pass voucher bills, legislators should focus on promoting diversity and fully funding and supporting our public schools, which serve 90% of our students.