The year 2021 has proved a landmark for the "school choice" cause — a movement committed to the idea of providing public money for parents to use to pay for private schooling.
Republican control of a majority of state legislatures, combined with pandemic learning disruptions, set the stage for multiple victories. Seven states have created new school choice programs, and 11 others have expanded current programs through laws that offer taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schooling and authorize tax credits and educational savings accounts that incentivize parents moving their children out of public schools.
On its face, this new legislation may sound like a win for families seeking more school options. But the roots of the school choice movement are more sinister.
white Southerners first fought for "freedom of choice" in the mid-1950s as a means of defying the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which mandated the desegregation of public schools. Their goal was to create pathways for white families to remove their children from classrooms facing integration.
Prominent libertarians then took advantage of this idea, seeing it not only as a means of providing private options, but also as a tool in their crusade to dismantle public schools altogether. This history reveals that rather than giving families more school options, school choice became a tool intended to give most families far fewer in the end.
School choice had its roots in a crucial detail of the Brown decision: The ruling only applied to public schools. white Southerners viewed this as a loophole for evading desegregated schools.
In 1955 and 1956, conservative white leaders in Virginia devised a regionwide strategy of "massive resistance" to the high court's desegregation mandate that hinged on state-funded school vouchers. The State Board of Education provided vouchers, then called tuition grants, of $250 ($2,514 in 2021 dollars) to parents who wanted to keep their children from attending integrated schools. The resistance leaders understood that most Southern white families could not afford private school tuition — and many who could afford it lacked the ideological commitment to segregation to justify the cost. The vouchers, combined with private donations to the new schools in counties facing desegregation mandates, would enable all but a handful of the poorest Whites to evade compliance.
Other Southern states soon adopted voucher programs like the one in Virginia to facilitate the creation of private schools called "segregation academies," despite opposition from Black families and civil rights leaders. Oliver Hill, an NAACP attorney key to the Virginia case against "separate but equal" education that was folded into Brown, explained their position this way: "No one in a democratic society has a right to have his private prejudices financed at public expense."
Despite such objections, key conservative and libertarian thinkers and foundations, including economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, Human Events editor Felix Morley and publisher Henry Regnery, backed the white Southern cause. They recognized that white Southerners' push for "freedom of choice" presented an opportunity to advance their goal of privatizing government services and resources, starting with primary and secondary education. They barely, if ever, addressed racism and segregation; instead, they spoke of freedom (implicitly, white freedom).
Friedman began promoting "educational freedom" in 1955, just as Southern states prepared to resist Brown. And he praised the Virginia voucher plan in his 1962 book, "Capitalism and Freedom," holding it up as a model for school choice everywhere. "Whether the school is integrated or not," he wrote, should have no bearing on eligibility for the vouchers. In other words, he knew the program was designed to fund segregation academies and saw it as no barrier to receiving state financing.
Friedman was far from alone. His fellow libertarians, including those on the staff of the William Volker Fund, a leading funder on the right, saw no problem with state governments providing tax subsidies to white families who chose segregation academies, even as these states disenfranchised Black voters, blocking them from having a say in these policies.
Libertarians understood that while abolishing the social safety net and other policies constructed during the Progressive era and the New Deal was wildly unpopular, even among white Southerners, school choice could win converts.
These conservative and libertarian thinkers offered up ostensibly race-neutral arguments in favor of the tax subsidies for private schooling sought by white supremacists. In doing so, they taught defenders of segregation a crucial new tactic — abandon overtly racist rationales and instead tout liberty, competition and market choice while embracing an anti-government stance. These race-neutral rationales for private school subsidies gave segregationists a justification that could survive court review — and did, for more than a decade before the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional.
When challenged, Friedman and his allies denied that they were motivated by racial bigotry. Yet, they had enough in common ideologically with the segregationists for the partnership to work. Both groups placed a premium on the liberty of those who had long profited from white-supremacist policies and sought to shield their freedom of action from the courts, liberal government policies and civil rights activists.
Crucially, freedom wasn't the ultimate goal for either group of voucher supporters. White Southerners wielded colorblind language about freedom of choice to help preserve racial segregation and to keep Black children from schools with more resources.
Friedman, too, was interested in far more than school choice. He and his libertarian allies saw vouchers as a temporary first step on the path to school privatization. He didn't intend for governments to subsidize private education forever. Rather, once the public schools were gone, Friedman envisioned parents eventually shouldering the full cost of private schooling without support from taxpayers. Only in some "charity" cases might governments still provide funding for tuition.
Friedman first articulated this outlook in his 1955 manifesto, but he clung to it for half a century, explaining in 2004, "In my ideal world, government would not be responsible for providing education any more than it is for providing food and clothing." Four months before his death in 2006, when he spoke to a meeting of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), he was especially frank. Addressing how to give parents control of their children's education, Friedman said, "The ideal way would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it."
Today, the ultrawealthy backers of school choice are cagey about this long-term goal, knowing that care is required to win the support of parents who want the best for their children. Indeed, in a sad irony, decades after helping to impede Brown's implementation, school choice advocates on the right targeted families of color for what one libertarian legal strategist called "forging nontraditional alliances." They won over some parents of color, who came to see vouchers and charter schools as a way to escape the racial and class inequalities that stemmed from white flight out of urban centers and the Supreme Court's willingness to allow white Americans to avoid integrating schools.
But the history behind vouchers reveals that the rhetoric of "choice" and "freedom" stands in stark contrast to the real goals sought by conservative and libertarian advocates. The system they dream of would produce staggering inequalities, far more severe than the disparities that already exist today. Wealthy and upper-middle-class families would have their pick of schools, while those with far fewer resources — disproportionately families of color — might struggle to pay to educate their children, leaving them with far fewer options or dependent on private charity. Instead of offering an improvement over underfunded schools, school choice might lead to something far worse.
As Maya Angelou wisely counseled in another context, "When people show you who they are, believe them the first time." If we fail to recognize the right's true end game for public education, it could soon be too late to reverse course.
Nancy MacLean is William H. Chafe distinguished professor of history and public policy at Duke University and author of "Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America."