It’s the Slingshot, Not the Nuke, That’s the Bigger Danger?

For most of American educational history, government massively discriminated against African Americans, first with some states prohibiting any education for them, and long after that districts maintaining de jure, and to this day de facto, segregated schools. But we are to believe that the big segregation danger is school choice? That’s like saying it’s not the nuke we’ve been using that’s the big threat, but that someone might use a slingshot. It is also what the Center for American Progress is asserting in a new brief: The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers.

This may be a new report, but that modern proposals are a huge danger because some states and districts used choice to evade public school integration after Brown v. Board of Education isn’t a new argument. Some places absolutely did do this, but the argument remains as logically and factually untethered from full history as it has ever been.

For one thing, the large-scale drive to have education dollars follow students to chosen schools did not start with white people trying to escape racial integration, but Roman Catholics—and others—trying to direct funding for their children to schools that taught their religious values, not someone else’s. They wanted to be treated equally, which public schools did not do. Meanwhile, as even the CAP report hints, often private people tried to help African Americans in the face of government discrimination.

Of course, we continue to have segregation in education: if you want to access a “good” district, you have to be able to pay for a home there. That is why most people probably do not think of private schooling when they think of “white flight,” but of families moving out of districts with growing African-American populations into suburban districts that tended to be largely white. This happened most famously in Michigan, not deep in the kudzu of Alabama or Mississippi.

Here, perhaps, is the biggest thing the CAP report misses: private school choice is extremely popular with African Americans, who want to be empowered to seek out something better for themselves, not be dependent on politicians and bureaucrats. For instance, a 2016 poll by the journal Education Next found that a whopping 64 percent of African Americans supported “a tax credit for individual and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools.” Such support is not new, with approval for vouchers in the 60 percent range at least as far back as 1999.

Asserting that the origins of school choice are racist reeks of politicized guilt by association. But far more important, it ignores historical, current, and logical reality. Government, including the public schools, often forced segregation, and the public schools continue to be massively segregated. Meanwhile, logic dictates that there is far more danger of inflicting continued harm with a government system in which choice is primarily only possible by purchasing a home, than by giving parents control of education funds. Indeed, most African Americans agree: they want school choice.