Corporate Reformers Privatization School Choice Segregation

School Choice: Grounded in Racism, Reinvented by the Radical Right

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Rick Hess makes a valiant but unsuccessful effort to provide a new origin story to the idea of school choice, attributing it to Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill. That’s quite a stretch, because Thomas Paine lived before there were any public schools in the United States, and Mill, of course, never had any contact with the American idea of free, universal, democratic public schooling. In my experience as a historian of education, there was zero support for school vouchers in the United States in the nineteenth century, although Archbishop John Hughes of New York proposed that there should be Protestant public schools and Catholic public schools. That idea went nowhere.

At that time and well into the twentieth century, American public schools were broadly admired and considered a high point of our democratic experiment, even though they were racially segregated and had many flaws.

However, there was political opposition during the same period of time to paying for tax-supported public schools by wealthy taxpayers who didn’t want to pay for other people’s children. Fortunately they did not dent the American people’s devotion to their public schools.

Although Hess denies it, the school choice movement arose with opposition to desegregation. There was no movement for vouchers before the Brown decision of 1954. Period. Immediately after the Brown decision, southern politicians said NEVER to desegregation. A group of southern senators issued a manifesto in 1956 declaring that their states would never desegregate. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas was one of the few who did not sign it.

When the federal courts began to demand compliance with the unanimous Brown decision, southern politicians fastened on “school choice” as their answer to the courts. Let everyone choose, they said, knowing that whites would choose white schools, and blacks (facing threats and intimidation) would choose to remain in black schools. I not only wrote about this era, I lived it. I graduated high school in a segregated school district on 1956, and watched with dismay as white southern leaders embraced school choice as their answer to the Supreme Court.

Those southern governors and senators never mentioned Thomas Paine or John Stuart Mill. Never.

Nor did they mention the GI Bill as a precedent for vouchers. The GI Bill offered free college (to colleges and universities, almost all of which were racially segregated) as a reward to those who had served in the military in World War II. In what way is the GI Bill analogous to giving out vouchers for K-12 students? What service by these children is being rewarded?

The southern politicians wanted school choice to maintain racial segregation. Period.

Rick, I recommend you read Mercedes Schneider’s book “School Choice,” which gives an accurate account of the southern politicians’ love of school choice.

School choice and segregation go together like ham and eggs, a horse and carriage.

The schools of Sweden and Chile experienced increased segregation by social class, religion, and ethnicity after the introduction of school choice.

To deny it is akin to climate change denial.

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