School Choice

No, Segregationists Weren't the Driving Force Behind School Choice

The anti-voucher polemic is augmented by historical half-truths and selective omissions of countervailing evidence.


Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement, by Steve Suitts, New South Books, 136 pages, $25.95

Public support for school vouchers is on the rise, with 58 percent of respondents in a 2019 Education Next survey favoring the policy. Within the Democratic Party, opinions tend to split along racial lines: Most African-American and Hispanic Democrats support vouchers and charter schools, while most white Democrats oppose them. Indeed, the beneficiaries of currently existing voucher programs draw disproportionately from historically disadvantaged communities. Programs such as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship draw some 70 percent of their participants from African American and Hispanic households, and studies from several cities—Cleveland, Milwaukee, Washington—suggest that voucher systems improve racial diversity.

These trends have spawned something of an existential crisis among teachers unions. As a result we have texts like Overturning Brown, in which attorney Steve Suitts aims to rebrand the entire school choice movement as a surreptitious attempt to reimpose racial segregation. Suitts once wrote a book that bent over backward to absolve the New Deal–supporting Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black of his youthful membership in the Alabama Ku Klux Klan; now he has written a book that bends over backward to do the reverse to school choice.

Suitts begins with a kernel of historical evidence. In the immediate aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, several Southern states attempted to circumvent the desegregation order by shuttering their public schools. They often paired this approach with subsidies for white children to attend private "segregation academies" by way of private donations, preferential tax credits, public tuition grants, and similar voucher-like mechanisms. In Suitts' mind, this episode indelibly stains school choice with a segregationist legacy, no matter the modern movement's intentions or outcomes.

Apart from its underlying genetic fallacy, this is an exceptionally flimsy origin story for school choice. More than a century before Brown, such liberal theorists as Thomas Paine, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill sketched out precursors to the modern voucher concept. The policy's earliest practical examples can be traced to the still-existent town tuitioning systems of rural New England, implemented in the decades after the Civil War.

To build a link to segregation, Suitts must ignore these precursors and instead focus on the timing of an influential 1955 article on the economics of school competition by Milton Friedman. Friedman became aware of the segregationist school-closure policies while writing his article, and he devoted a lengthy footnote to discussing their implications. Notably, he predicted that under a well-designed voucher mechanism, "mixed [race] schools will grow at the expense of the nonmixed" due to the pressures of competition. As he elaborated in Capitalism and Freedom (1962), vouchers could be paired with social persuasion to "foster the growth of attitudes and opinions that would lead mixed schools to become the rule and segregated schools the rare exception."

While Suitts evinces awareness of Friedman's predictions, he obscures any hint of the economist's earnest objections to segregation. Friedman "was at best agnostic about ending segregation in schools," he declares. At another point he accuses Friedman of "not only echo[ing] segregationist plans but help[ing] to revive a new nonracial defense of segregation." He concedes that Friedman "never joined forces with segregationists" but accuses him of remaining "indifferent about how his libertarian economic arguments aided their strategies."

Contrast that depiction with Friedman's own language, beginning with his 1955 essay: "I deplore segregation and racial prejudice.…So long as the schools are publicly operated, the only choice is between forced nonsegregation and forced segregation; and if I must choose between these evils, I would choose the former as the lesser." The future Nobelist reiterated the point in 1962: "If one must choose between the evils of enforced segregation or enforced integration, I myself would find it impossible not to choose integration." These words are a far cry from agnosticism or indifference.

That is not the only way Suitts' study is tendentious. He surveys the secondary literature on several Southern states; the case of Virginia is illustrative, as it was both ground zero for the school-closure movement and the site of a voucher-like tuition-grant program adopted in 1959. Suitts interprets tuition grants as a natural extension of Massive Resistance, the state's policy of refusing to comply with Brown.

This would likely have surprised the program's architects and opponents alike. The Virginia program emerged from an unusual coalition of legislators on both sides of the segregation issue who sought to break the Massive Resistance hardliners behind school closure. Though not untainted by moderate ("cushioner") varieties of segregationism, these statutorily race-neutral grants chipped away at the previous legislature's status quo and accordingly gained the support of anti-segregation lawmakers, including Kathryn Stone and John A.K. Donovan.

Voucher supporters such as Friedman observed the Virginia program from afar with a cautious hope that it would break the Massive Resistance regime. Fellow free market economists James M. Buchanan and Warren Nutter, both based at the University of Virginia, recognized the problem of "private schools that exclude pupils on the basis of race" and recommended "excluding such schools from the tuition grant program" in a 1964 study. This was not merely an academic point: In Allen v. Prince Edward County (1961), a federal judge used Virginia's statutory requirement of "freedom of choice" in education to enjoin Prince Edward County, which had shuttered its public schools entirely, from accessing state voucher money.

Virginia's ongoing political realignment reveals that vouchers cut across the desegregation issue in complex ways, none of which appear in Suitts' narrative. He touts state NAACP attorney Oliver Hill's opposition to the tuition grant program but omits Hill's concession that vouchers were an "intelligent approach [that] will have a beneficial effect in erasing some of the erroneous ideas relative to the action of the Supreme Court." He also mischaracterizes Fr. Virgil Blum, the Wisconsin-based director of Citizens for Educational Freedom (CEF), as having influenced segregationists to support vouchers. Blum was in fact an outspoken integrationist, and the CEF—a Catholic advocacy group that spearheaded the popularization of Friedman's voucher plans—filed an important amicus brief arguing against the segregationist uses of tuition grants in the landmark Supreme Court case Griffin v. Prince Edward County (1964).

Meanwhile, some of the most vocal opposition to school vouchers in the post-Brown era came from segregationist hardliners. One such opponent was John S. Battle Jr., the state's public school litigator against the Virginia NAACP's integration enforcement lawsuits. Whereas Friedman welcomed the use of vouchers to undermine segregation, Battle reacted to the same prospect in horror. Vouchers, he argued in a 1959 memo, would lead to the "negro engulfment" of the public schools.

In the wake of federal court rulings against the Massive Resisters, Battle had devised a subversive ploy to preserve racial separation by strictly capping enrollments in majority-white public schools. If vouchers opened the same schools to transfers, his own scheme to overturn Brown would crumble. As Battle explained, "for every white child who vacates his desk there is a great risk that a Negro child will occupy it." Allowing school choice, he warned, would ultimately "permit the introduction of far more integration."

Unfortunately, Battle's "engulfment" thesis found an audience among Virginia's all-white chapter of the National Education Association, engendering an unholy alliance between the teachers union and the segregationists. In early 1959, the union's state director, Robert F. Williams, circulated a copy of Battle's memo to every superintendent in Virginia, touting it as a model strategy document. Five years later, Williams led a campaign to repeal all tuition grants on the grounds that "parents are using the grants to send their children to integrated schools which the entire purpose of the legislation was to avoid."

Equipped with a faulty history that conspicuously ignores anti-voucher segregationism, Suitts concludes his book by conflating all private schooling with today's existing voucher programs. Since private schools nationwide serve fewer minority students than do public schools, he treats this empirical disparity as de facto evidence of the "segregationist legacy" of the voucher movement. By this convoluted reasoning, vouchers that intentionally aim to increase minority access to private schools somehow become tools of racial exclusion.

Suitts' book is a missed opportunity, since the voucher politics of the civil rights era would make for an interesting history. He could have contrasted the Southern abuses of the concept, which court rulings largely curtailed in the 1960s, with the actual origin of today's school choice advocacy groups. The latter emerged mainly from private religious school parents and grassroots organizations such as the CEF, geographically anchored in the Midwest. Instead, Suitts opts for a frenzied anti-voucher polemic, augmented by historical half-truths and selective omissions of countervailing evidence. It's bad history, but it does serve his intended readership's political biases.