January 16, 2017

The deep racist history of school choice

Steve Singer, Gadfly on the Wall - School choice was invented as a mechanism of white flight. Before the federal government forced schools to desegregate, no one was all that interested in having an alternative to traditional public schools. But once whites got wind that the Supreme Court might make their kids go to school with black kids, lots of white parents started clamoring for “choice.” It was intended as a way to get around Brown vs. Board. In 1953, a year before that landmark decision, many white southerners felt it was vitally important to continue a segregated education. They deeply desired to continue having “separate but equal” schools for the races, yet the US Supreme Court seemed ready to strike that down.

Enter Georgia’s Gov. Herman Talmadge who created what became known as the “private-school plan.” Talmadge proposed an amendment to the Georgia Constitution to empower the general assembly to privatize the state’s public education system. “We can maintain separate schools regardless of the US Supreme Court by reverting to a private system, subsidizing the child rather than the political subdivision,” Talmadge said. The plan goes like this. If the Supreme Court mandates desegregation (as it did), the state would close the schools and issue vouchers allowing students to enroll in segregated private schools. Fortunately, Talmadge’s plan was never implemented in Georgia. But it became the model for segregationists everywhere. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, the plan actually came to fruition – sort of. Two years before the 1959 federal desegregation deadline, local newspaper publisher J. Barrye Wall explained what county leaders were planning:

“We are working [on] a scheme in which we will abandon public schools, sell the buildings to our corporation, reopen as privately operated schools with tuition grants from [Virginia] and P.E. county as the basic financial program,” he wrote. “Those wishing to go to integrated schools can take their tuition grants and operate their own schools. To hell with ’em.”

Ultimately the county refused to sell the public school buildings. However, public education in Prince Edward County was nevertheless abandoned for five years, from 1959 to 1964. During that time, taxpayer dollars were funneled to the segregated white academies, which were housed in privately owned facilities such as churches and the local Moose Lodge. The federal government struck down the program as a misuse of taxpayer funds after only a year, but even so whites benefited and blacks lost. Since there were no local taxes collected to operate public schools during those years, whites could invest in private schools for their children, while blacks in the county were left to fend for themselves. Since they were unable and unwilling to finance their own private, segregated schools, many black children were simply shut out of school for multiple years. In other states, segregationists enacted “freedom of choice” plans that allowed white students to transfer out of desegregated schools. Any black students that tried to do the same had to clear numerous administrative hurdles.

Moreover, entering formerly all-white schools would subject them to harassment from teachers and students. Anything to keep the races apart in the classroom – and usually the entire building


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