Commentary

School Choice — Then and Now

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
March 18, 2002

When religious liberty activist Barry Lynn reminded the audience at a recent Cato policy forum that racists used school vouchers to evade the 1954 landmark Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka decision, the woman seated next to me let out a loud sigh. Virginia Walden-Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, said she clearly recalls those tumultuous days — and believes they are irrelevant to the current discussion about school choice.

During the 1960s she attended Central High in Arkansas, where the Little Rock Nine integrated the school in 1957. Around the country, white parents used voucher programs to flee public schools when integration loomed at their neighborhood schools. Some schools were shut down in defiance of the Brown decision. According to Stetson Kennedy in the 1959 book “The Jim Crow Guide: The Way It Was”: “Both Arkansas and Virginia went ahead with their plans to close all schools affected by integration orders; in the latter state 13,000 students were left without instruction by the closure of nine schools.”

Walden-Ford notes with both regret and pride that black families united to teach children in makeshift schools and their homes. But when she hears critics argue that school choice is inherently racist, Walden-Ford is blunt: “That’s nonsense. That was then. Right now we’re talking about opportunities for kids.”

Some public school defenders hearken back to segregationist academies from the 1960s, but they don’t discuss the discriminatory roots and history of public schools. That starts with lawmakers cutting off money to public schools after the influx of Catholic immigrants in the 1840s.

It wasn’t until 1916 that there were as many blacks in public high schools as there were in private schools — and blacks in all public schools were in separate and unequal facilities. The Brown decision itself was a response to a century of segregated public schools.

Choice opponents who cite the segregationist academies of the 1960s also avoid mentioning the 1925 Pierce v. Society of Sisters case. Oregon’s Compulsory Education Act required that parents send their children between the ages of eight and 16 “to a public school for the period of time a public school shall be held during the current year.” The Supreme Court, in a 9-0 decision, concluded that the Act “unreasonably interferes with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.” Among the biggest boosters of the Act forcing all children into public schools? None other than the Ku Klux Klan.

The King Kleagle of the KKK hailed the ballot initiative when it passed in 1922: “[The Ku Klux Klan] with its white-robed sentinels keeping eternal watch, shall for all time, with its blazing torches as signal fires, stand guard on the outer walls of the Temple of Liberty, cry out the warning when danger appears and take its place in the front rank of defenders of the public schools.”

Another Klansman leader stated: “I believe that our Free Public School is the cornerstone of good government and that those who are seeking to destroy it are enemies of our Republic and are unworthy of citizenship.”

Nonetheless, images of segregationist voucher plans work to silence blacks who recall those days. It shouldn’t be surprising that a survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in the year 2000 found that 48 percent of blacks older than 50 oppose school choice (44 percent expressed support).

But the warnings that school choice “turns back the clock” is not resonating with younger blacks. According to the same survey, almost 60 percent of blacks support vouchers. The numbers were even higher for people under 35 (75 percent) and people with children in the household (74 percent). “The unions and others opposed to choice don’t have anything else to fight with, so they talk about the 1960s,” says Walden-Ford.

Casey J. Lartigue is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.