Commentary

On This Side of the Floodgate

By Gerard Robinson
May 11, 2004

A floodgate of freedom opened in 1954: The U.S. Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that American-style apartheid was unconstitutional. Since then, Brown has been the standard bearer by which we judge the tenacity of educational opportunity in America. During the 20th century, no other school reform effort has tested the buoyancy of Brown than did freedom of choice: both in the public and private school sectors. Although freedom and choice are sacred principles in America, the commingling of freedom and choice in education has had a strange career.

Under the private school freedom of choice plan, a parent is given public money to pay for tuition at a private school. This plan was called a voucher during the 1990s. When it was challenged, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case that Cleveland’s voucher program did not offend the federal constitution. Attorney Clint Bolick believes the Zelman ruling supports the goals of Brown. President George W. Bush said the voucher ruling was “just as historic” as the Brown decision. I agree. Millions of Americans do not.

The ACLU, People for the American Way, the NAACP, and some civil rights leaders, for example, believe it is “racially insensitive” or “frivolous” to make a correlation between Zelman and Brown. The compelling belief among those groups is that school vouchers will baptize poor minority schoolchildren in a pool of inequity and, thus, return America to the backwaters of separate and unequal education. Because of this conviction, anti-voucher groups have lobbied against the expansion of private choice in Milwaukee and Cleveland during the 1990s, helped to defeat voucher initiatives in California and Michigan in 2000, and in 2004 are working to cut the legs from under voucher proposals in Colorado, Utah, and Washington, D.C.

While one can admire the conviction of anti-voucher groups, school vouchers in practice have not culminated in the racial Armageddon they had predicted. Still, the rhetoric of fear burns hot. And though anti-voucher hate language often allows rhetoric to triumph over reason, voucher opponents’ anxiety about a racist misuse of private choice should not go unheeded. For tucked away inside their rhetoric of fear is a dose of historical reality.

During the 1950s, many state legislators helped orchestrate what was called Massive Resistance. According to former U.S. Senator Harry Byrd (D-Va.), “If we can organize the Southern States for massive resistance to this order [Brown], I think that in time the rest of the country will realize that racial integration is not going to be accepted in the South.”

What mushroomed from this Southern manifesto-inspired freedom of choice plan was a private school tuition grant. Similar to a voucher, a tuition grant was redeemable at a private school. But unlike today’s voucher, yesteryear’s tuition grant was race-conscious. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, for example, white parents used public money to pay tuition at white-only private academies while the county’s public school system remained closed — from 1959 to 1964 — and the county’s black students were left behind. Federal court decisions rendered during the 1960s uprooted this fear-based freedom of choice plan because it was, in part, inconsistent with Brown. The opposite result occurred in 2002 when the Zelman court upheld parents’ right to exercise liberty-based freedom of choice.

Today, parents of all races can enroll their children in choice programs without fear that the state will segregate them into separate and unequal schools. For example, Bill and Liz Zembrowski, both white, have three children in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. According to Bill, “I’m glad to see the diversity created by the choice program. I’m seeing Black kids, Hispanic kids, Asian kids. That’s really good.” Liz agrees. “The choice program is benefiting all the kids because it’s increasing diversity.” Racial integration at private (or public) schools with the use of public money was illegal during the fear-based freedom of choice movement.

And not only is choice opening the door to diversity, it is also opening the door to educational opportunity. Juanita Doyle, a black mother with three children in the Milwaukee choice program, said: “I’m confident that because I have a broader choice in where my children learn, we — child, school, parent — increase the odds of their graduating from high school and pursuing bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees.”

Brown’s floodgate of freedom remains open 50 years later — forever washing stains off the straightjacket of racial segregation so that American society can proudly wear the coat of many colors. While we still have much more to do to improve American education in 2004, we are far removed from the state of affairs that governed American education in 1954. Therefore, let’s honor the accomplishments Brown v. Board of Education.

Gerard Robinson is an author of a chapter in the new book, Educational Freedom in Urban America: Brown v. Board After Half a Century (Cato Institute, 2004).