Opinion: 70 years after Brown v. Board, America is still segregating students

Need an easy way to discredit something you don’t like? Easy: accuse it of being racist.

That’s the strategy being employed by opponents of school choice.

The Americans United for…

Need an easy way to discredit something you don’t like? Easy: accuse it of being racist.

That’s the strategy being employed by opponents of school choice.

The Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) recently published an op-ed titled, “Let’s not forget: School vouchers were created to prop up racial segregation in the South.” 

“‘School choice programs [subsidized] white students’ attendance at private segregated academies, which were not covered by the Brown ruling,” the article claims. “As a result, many Southern schools remained almost completely segregated until the late 1960s.”  

The author – presumably clutching their pearls – labels school choice advocates as “anti-government activists, Christian fundamentalists, [and] the hierarchy of the Catholic Church [who] even had the gall to pitch vouchers to black Americans, arguing that public schools … weren’t doing a good job serving them.”  

National teachers’ union boss Randi Weingarten made similar comparisons about parental rights advocates. 

AUSCS’s solution to this perceived segregation is “a national recommitment to the twin pillars of American democracy: public education and separation of church and state.”  

But it fails to mention much of the history and data of modern-day school choice. 

Oh, and the bigotry and segregation of public schools.  

Origins of school choice  

The school choice movement actually predates Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights movement. 

The first two instances of school choice – both “town tuitioning” programs – launched in 1869 and 1873 in Vermont and Maine, respectively.  

The idea behind it was if a student lived in a town with no public school – or the public school didn’t offer the student’s grade – the state would still provide funding for the student’s education, including private school tuition. 

So while some southerners in the mid-1900s may have viewed school choice as a means to maintain stratified social classes, that wasn’t its original purpose.  

School choice programs are racially diverse  

If politicians and lobbyists are trying to re-segregate schools via school choice, they aren’t doing a very good job. 

According to EdChoice, there are about 80 school choice programs of various shapes and sizes nationwide. 

Most programs have eligibility requirements, give priority to disadvantaged students, or both. Some limit participation based on multiple characteristics. 

Of the 80 programs, about 30 are designed for or prioritize special needs students. Another 40 favor low-income families. 

Students in foster care, from military families, living in a low-quality public school district, or who have been subject to violence at school are often considered disadvantaged, too.  

As a result, the demographic data of large school choice programs shows more diversity, not less than public schools. 

A 2021 evaluation of over 10,000 Family Empowerment Scholarship students in Florida reported 35% black students, 36% Hispanic students and 25% white students.   

Comparatively, the state’s overall population is roughly 56% white, 26% Hispanic, and 15% black.  

A similar evaluation of over 57,000 Tax Credit Scholarship students broke down into the following demographics: 40% black, 35% Hispanic and 22% white. And Florida’s Opportunity Scholarship: 46% black, 22% Hispanic and 24% white.   

The beneficiaries of school choice programs are in fact very diverse. 

And not just in Florida.  

Indiana’s ESA program is comprised of 24% black students, 13% Hispanic or multiracial, and 63% white students, who are statistically underrepresented, since 84% of the overall Indiana population is white, and just 10% is black. 

Similarly, Indiana’s Choice Scholarship has nearly 10,000 Hispanic participants (19% of the program’s total), even though they comprise only 8% of the state’s population. 

And Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) – widely considered the nation’s first modern day school choice program – is likewise diverse. 

In the 2021-22 school year, MCPC was 48% African American and 34.5% Hispanic, while the local public schools were 50% African American and 28% Hispanic, reported School Choice Wisconsin. 

Even in mostly white states, such as New Hampshire, school choice programs still reflect huge diversity. 

The Granite State’s new Education Freedom program has 18% minority students, even though 93% of the general population is white. 

Contrary to AUSCS’s claims, school choice doesn’t promote segregation.  

But what about public schools? Touted as a bastion of the great American melting pot, the public education system has a few unsavory chapters in its history, too. 

Compulsory public education and the KKK  

Though primarily known for suppressing black rights in the South, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) regained notoriety in the 1920s as staunch advocates for public education – specifically the compulsory education movement. 

At the time, private schools were primarily Catholic, composed of Catholic immigrants.  

The Klan believed that public schools, teaching state-mandated curricula, would better “Americanize” these Catholic and immigrant youth and create a more unified society.  

Like modern-day proponents of public schools, it called public schools the “nurseries of democracy.” 

The KKK supported the Oregon Compulsory Education Act – and other similar efforts – which forced all school-age children to attend public school.  

In the state of Washington, the Klan even put forward the “K.K.K. Anti-School Bill” to stamp out private education.  

It also lobbied alongside the National Education Association for the creation of a federal Department of Education to fund public schools. 

That effort would eventually come to fruition in 1979, but fortunately, the KKK’s other schemes for education weren’t so successful. 

In 1925, the Oregon Compulsory Education Act was unanimously declared unconstitutional by all nine Supreme Court Justices. 

They held that “the fundamental liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.” 

The hidden segregation of public schools  

While most assume the days of segregation are far behind us, reality isn’t so simple.  

Racial segregation has reared its ugly head in public education again, ironically empowered by our culture’s hyperfixation with race-based equity and inclusion.  

For example, a California school district was recently sued for hosting a “Playdate Social for Black, Brown and API [Asian and Pacific Islander] Families” which excluded white families.  

An Illinois school district recently came under fire for offering separate classes for students of color, taught by teachers of color. Critics argued the practice violated the civil rights of both students and staff.  

And it’s not all about race either.  

A Nebraska district illegally segregated deaf and hard-of-hearing students into “cluster” schools, which the Department of Justice ruled “discriminatory” and said “runs afoul of our nation’s civil rights laws.” 

Public school watchdogs have also criticized the widespread and inequal treatment of special needs students and even the entire premise of address- or zone-based school attendance.  

Available to All argues forcing students to attend a school based solely on their home address is not much better than segregation – especially when many families can’t afford alternatives to their locally-zoned public school.  

Is this the great “pillar of American democracy” – a system that imprisons parents simply for trying to send their child to a public school in a different zip code? 

No, school choice is not a conspiracy to re-segregate schools, and it’s not a roundabout way to subsidize rich, white kids’ fancy private education. 

But even it was a scam, the thousands of low-income, minority students who are better educated through school choice, or what critics like to call “voucher schemes,” certaintly aren’t getting the short end of the stick.