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.

NEXT: Jo Jorgensen Wins Libertarian Party Presidential Nomination

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  1. The Wuhan coronavirus will change the debate on school choice, and pedagogy for all time. Finally!

    The debate has always been about money, and control. Progressives want both. NFW.

    1. Conservatives want private schools so they can hammer that Christian/Muslim rot into the soft skulls of captive schoolchildren.

      Every conservative asshole in the world complains about the separation of church and state.

      Here is what they hate:

      A Utah substitute told fifth graders that ‘homosexuality is wrong.’ She was escorted out after 3 students spoke up.

      Conservatism is a lie based on Bronze Age bullshit myth.

      And Bravo to those three young girls who stood up to that Christian monster of the state (for a day).

      1. You’ll just believe any the program throw at you, pedophile.
        Get lynched

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      2. Surprise surprise the retarded dildo missed this:

        “Most African-American and Hispanic Democrats support vouchers and charter schools, while most white Democrats oppose them.”

        Why do you think that is, dildo?

        1. Surprise surprise, you missed the point. It was a private employer.

        2. False consciousness, obviously.

      3. People more concerned about their kids than teachers unions want private schools and school choice.

        And to suggest that all private schools are parochial is just plain stupid.

        1. I mean, it is shriek.

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  2. Yes, they were. See how easy that was? Plus, you can check Welch’s posts.

    1. “Yes, they were…”

      No, they weren’t, scumbag lefty.

    2. The only real racist in education has been and always will be you and your Democrat friends you piece of human garbage.

      1. Look at what propaganda has done.

  3. Segregation by race as well as integration by race that is mandated by the state on private entities are both forms of racism / discrimination.

    1. Oh look, bonus points to prove I’m right!

      1. And thank you for proving the systemic racism of the left.

        1. You really don’t know what you’re trying to talk about.

    2. Keep trying racist, but Matt Welch beat you to that column.

      1. You’re racist

      2. The guy who cowers in the corner when someone calls him a racist?

        1. Where a mask, or bake the cake?

    3. Racial collectivism is bad enough already without handing it the force of service firearms and law. Brazil was a slaveholding monarchic mercantilist colony, yet managed to overcome segregation with remarkably little violence. Then again, the issue was not exploited by high-tariff industrialists to force a civil war in aid of a protective tariff.

  4. Have a happy Memorial day folks. I’m mowing today .
    Tomorrow , ribeye and corn on the grill, beer and have a
    bottle of Maker’s Mark I need to open. Cheers

  5. Here’s a synopsis of the book he wrote if you want to glance at it. Note the url and you don’t even have to click the link.

    He’s an “education advocate” so anybody who disagrees with him is obviously anti-education. He’s also an adjunct professor at Emory University – and if you remember former Emory University professor Michael Bellesiles and his book that “proved” that America’s gun culture was entirely fictitious and very few early Americans actually owned guns, you may be a little skeptical of Emory University’s standards of scholarly research.

    1. Michael Bellesiles resigned; I don’t know if Emory would have / could have fired him. But people like him, and books like his, don’t pop up out of thin air, and I suspect the school hired him precisely because he was loose with the truth in all the right woke ways.

      What this book and review both show is how important individualism is, how may “thorny” policy questions can be resolved without all the hand-wringing and hair pulling by just falling back on the principle of maximum individual liberty. I used to try to weigh the pros and cons of everything government did (or wanted to do), and eventually realized that government is simply incompetent. My burden of proof shifted to the government side, and I have not yet seen a single thing where government works better than individuals working voluntarily.

      1. Their better at killing a lot of people all over the world throughout history. That’s the only thing I can think of that their good at.

        1. They’re.

        2. I think it’s debatable — the Mongols didn’t try to hide what they were doing, just the opposite; but Communists and Nazis all tried to hide it, do it out of sight, blame it on others,or pretend it didn’t happen. I suppose 100 million dead is testimony to how many they did kill, but calling it competent or well done seems a stretch to me. On the other hand, only governments would even try mass murder on that scale, because individuals without the power of the State would be deterred by the certainly of a fight on their hands.

          So maybe probably 🙂

          1. You have shit in your teeth.

    2. Southern Spaces – a journal about real and imagined spaces and places of the US south and their global connections.


  6. Ya mean a bunch of lefty public school union dorks lied to get what they want? Shocking. Let’s call public schools what they really are, left wing indoctrination camps run by commies.

  7. Friedman’s cornered comment is an example of “if reality weren’t what it is” inducing a fake alternative. General Edwin Walker is an example of the result of rejecting reality. Ike punished Walker by putting him in charge of troops enforcing desegregation in Arkansas. Next thing you know the guy leads Klansmen in riots then tries to brainwash military personnel with Bircher agitprop till JFK let McNamara relieve him of command in former Nazi Germany. It was Friedman who alerted us of the law-changing power of braving the scorn of the looters and casting LP spoiler votes. That rejection of social pressure has served freedom well.

    1. Your hero’s brother, RFK, doesn’t come off too well, according to Wikipedia:

      In October 1962, Walker was arrested for promoting riots at the University of Mississippi in protest against the admission of black student James Meredith into the all-white university. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered Walker committed to a mental asylum for a 90-day evaluation, but psychiatrist Thomas Szasz protested and Walker was released in five days.

      Throwing political opponents into mental institutions was quite the common statist trick. You’d probably like to throw in so many that there’d be nobody left to leech off.

      1. “according to Wikipedia:”


        1. So what articles are you citing?

    2. “…Ike punished Walker by putting him in charge of troops enforcing desegregation in Arkansas…”

      So you were the third man on the grassy knoll, right? along with Elvis’ alien love-child?

  8. Observe the way Beatles-burning ku-klux Dixiecrats flowed to Wallace, whose racial collectivist spoiler votes nearly defeated Nixon. The Gee-Oh-Pee-in-a-Dixie-cup promptly welcomed the Klan to its ranks as it did in the 1928 election. Wallace was conveniently taken out by a “lone” gunman and Goldwater tarbrushed a holocauster for opposing unilateral disarmament and (get this!) racist for supporting Edwin Walker for Governor of Texas. The LP got on the map by rejecting Dixiecrat eugenicist bullying of women. Remember that next time the Kleptocracy smears us.

  9. All those black people crying with joy when they get their kids into the school of their choice sure hate black people.

  10. As a parent of a grade schooler I honestly don’t care if Hitler and Mussolini got together with Stalin and Mao and came up with the idea of school choice. Does not matter where it came from just that my daughter gets a quality education. And it is not as if they care whose idea it was it, is all about supporting the union members and by extension all that money they give to political campaigns (and we know what party 99% goes to).

    1. Now do corporations, but I think you won’t.

      1. Unions are people, too. But I think you ignore that.

      2. False equivalency.

      3. Yes, let’s do corporations. I do ‘t think you’ll find that corporations direct 99% of their money to a single party.

  11. As I understand the history, the momentum for the school voucher movement really started during the Kennedy era, since his school aid bill excluded funding to parochial schools under the logic that it may be a First Amendment violation — and the driver behind the exclusion was Southern protestants — supporting segregation — who didn’t want to see Catholic schools get money. Giving aid directly to parents was seen as bypassing the First Amendment concerns.

    Segregation was also an issue, but segregationists generally would have accepted the legislation if the aid wasn’t forbidden from going to segregated schools, and as the article above notes, voucher money could also be prohibited from going to segregated schools.

  12. Where I live, the lockdown and pathetic attempt to continue public schooling by weekly Zoom meetings and “recommended” work packets they sent home when it began has even the wokest of white progs looking to send their kiddos to private schools. The last straw for many came last week when they sent out an e-mail titled “Sumer School Programs”.

    1. What do you have against the ancient Sumerians?

      1. One of them is the Senate minority leader.

  13. Meanwhile, some of the most vocal opposition to school vouchers in the post-Brown era came from segregationist hardliners. santa clarita electrician

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