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No Matter Who Gets Credit for the Original Idea, School Vouchers Have Yet to Shake a Racist History

December 9, 2018

The history of school vouchers in American K12 education is rooted in racism.

This fact is indisputable.

Economist Milton Friedman, known as “the father of school choice,” is the name most commonly connected to the use of vouchers in K12 education. His 1955 paper, “The Role of Government in Education,” is the text often cited as central to Friedman’s views on school choice in the form of vouchers. An excerpt:

In terms of effects, the denationalization of education would widen the range of choice available to parents. …

Let the subsidy be made available to parents regardless where they send their children–provided only that it be to schools that satisfy specified minimum standards–and a wide variety of schools will spring up to meet the demand. Parents could express their views about schools directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending them to another….

Friedman was not the first economist/scholar to promote the school voucher concept; Thomas Paine did so in 1791, and John Stuart Mill did so in 1859. However, Friedman’s writings were the ones that coincided with the America’s Civil Rights movement– a time when many in southern, white America were keen on devising ways to thwart racial integration of public schools. Thus, it was Friedman’s school voucher writings that were newly publicized a time when many southern governors and other politicians were seeking creative circumvention for public school desegregation.

As I detail in my book, School Choice: The End of Public Education?, school voucher choice was put into practice to expressly to evade the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education. Below are excerpts on how this integration dodge played out in both Virginia and North Carolina:

In an effort to bypass the 1955 Supreme Court mandate that state courts require school districts to “make a prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance with the [1954] ruling,” [Virginia’s] Gray Commission devised what became known as the Gray Plan. In short, the Gray Plan involved the repeal of compulsory education laws in order to allow for school closure as a last resort to prevent desegregation. It also allowed for state-supervised student assignment to schools and tuition grants to allow public school students to attend private schools. …

Under the advisement of the Gray Commission that he appointed, Governor Stanley called the state legislature into a special session in August 1956, as author Douglas Reed notes, “to devise a legislative response to the prospect of court-ordered desegregation.” The resulting legislation based on the Gray Plan ( …called the Stanley Plan once passed) included both school closure and vouchers to private schools as options. …

[In North Carolina,] Governor Luther Hodges… created a seven-member, all-White Pearsall Committee. In what was known as the Pearsall Plan [1956], the committee advised the North Carolina General Assembly to alter compulsory school attendance as a means of excusing students from attending desegregated public schools. The committee also recommended that the state fund tuition grants for students to choose to attend private schools so as to avoid attending integrated public schools. The Pearsall Plan was not declared unconstitutional until 1969.

Whereas supporters of school vouchers may acknowledge the Civil Rights era usage of vouchers to reinforce segregation, they also try to paint a fresh face on school vouchers as such were “revived” decades later. For example, consider the following excerpts from this Brookings Institute chapter on the “education gap”:

The nineteenth-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill suggested the first fully developed voucher proposal. …

Nearly a hundred years later, economist Milton Friedman, a future Nobel prize winner, made much the same proposal:

Governments . . . could finance [education] by giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on “approved” educational services. Parents would then be free to spend this sum and any additional sum on purchasing educational services . . . of their own choice.

Friedman’s ideas initially were put to ill use. In the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, white southerners fought school desegregation with every legal means at their disposal—not only through delay, redistricting, and tokenism, but also by withdrawing white students from predominantly black public schools and placing them in white private schools. Courts, however, eventually struck down those practices, and today it is clear that publicly funded voucher schemes cannot pass constitutional muster if they permit private schools to discriminate on the basis of race or national origin. …

In the early 1990s, Brookings Institution scholars John Chubb and Terry M. Moe revived public interest in school choice. …

With vouchers, parents can choose schools that best address the needs of their child. Meanwhile, schools will compete with one another and come under consistent pressure to improve their services and develop more effective techniques for meeting customer demand. Bad schools, presumably, will lose customers—unless they quickly find ways to adapt and improve. Good schools, meanwhile, will flourish, and over time new schools will appear. In short, the promise of vouchers is the introduction of autonomy, flexibility, and innovation into public education.

A major problem with “the promise of vouchers” is that school voucher use does not promise racial integration. Consider this March 2017 article from the Atlantic:

new report from the Century Foundation’s Halley Potter… [examines] the empirical effects of private-school vouchers on different forms of segregation. …

A larger focus of the report is the impact of voucher programs on racial integration. In particular, Potter examines two U.S. studies, one in Louisiana and the other in Milwaukee, which each tracked students who moved from public to private schools. The first study, published in 2016, looked at the Louisiana Scholarship Program, a statewide voucher program that targets low-income students at low-performing public schools. The study originally reported that while public-school segregation decreased significantly, private-school segregation was somewhat higher. Potter found these results misleading for two reasons: First, the loss of a few students from overrepresented groups at public schools had a small effect on overall demographics. Second, the study reported the effects of voucher transfers on public and private schools separately. After crunching the numbers herself, using metropolitan demographics as a benchmark for integration, Potter’s results were quite different: Two-thirds of the school transfers had negative or mixed effects, resulting in overall increased segregation.

The second study, conducted in 2010, examined the transfer of students using the oldest school-voucher program in the country, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. As of the 2008-2009 school year, around 80 percent of students using these vouchers were black. According to Potter’s analysis, nearly 90 percent of the program’s students transferred from a public school where they were in the majority to a private school where they were still in the majority. This meant that although schools did not become more segregated, they also did not become significantly integrated.

Together, these studies indicate that private-school vouchers do not promote racial integration.

When it comes to racial integration, school vouchers have yet to “show promise.” Moreover, even though over 60 years has passed since vouchers were first used in K12 education to stymie the federal desegregation mandate, school voucher usage has yet to redeem its reputation as a catalyst for racial resegregation.

In the face of this reality, crediting Paine, or Mill, or Friedman with “the” idea for school vouchers matters little, for it is an idea that only fares well on paper.

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Interested in scheduling Mercedes Schneider for a speaking engagement? Click here.

Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. Thank you.

    This will make the libertarians furious.

    And Joe Nathan, who has been posting on my blog tonight that school choice is progressive.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Why did you limit the post to vouchers, leaving out charters and the broader concept of school choice? Segregation academies were the forerunners of charters.

    Sent from my iPad


  3. Vouchers allow parents to select WHO they want their children to go to school with, even when the decision is wrapped in stories of school success. Successful schools tend to be overwhelmingly comprised of certain types of students (and certain types of teachers, to be frank) over a more diversified student body (and faculty). For many parents the voucher serves as an opportunity to “escape” the diversified student body that represents their child’s assigned school district. In short, vouchers, and school choice in general, serve to further negatively impact students in public school settings with a diversified student body. More, it leaves them, as you stated, segregated schools. Can we just call school choice what it is without all the hyped up jargon? School choice is another way of saying White flight. In this case, the White flight is from the assigned school district.

  4. Linda permalink

    Another city to watch, in addition to the ones targeted by School Board Partners (the Gates’ Pahara crowd), is Birmingham. Its Mayor Woodfin, reportedly, embraces digital learning badges and game based learning.
    Southern New Hampshire University, an on-line behemoth merged with LRNG and they, with the help of the MacArthur Foundation and media, Oct. 19, 2018- “Getting Smart” (and rich if you’re in the tech industry) promote digital learning badges and game based learning. This specific ” …learning and workforce solution…” scheme has a presence in Chicago and, an initiative in Birmingham.
    In light of the NIH’s recent study that found lower test scores in languages and thinking and premature thinning of children’s brain cortexes, related to screen time, it’s evident that a conscience is lacking among some. The same can be said about the people who delivered Flint, Michigan’s toxic water to citizens.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. WE HAVE TO DO BETTER « Dad Gone Wild
  2. Mercedes Schneider: The Racist Origins of School Vouchers | Diane Ravitch's blog

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