The Real Roots of School Choice Lie in Inclusion and Integration

School vouchers helped create integration academies but school choice opponents don’t want you to know that.

In a recent column, activist Steve Suitts pulls a neat trick: he takes a policy that disproportionately benefits low-income minorities— andhas high levels of support among African-Americans and Hispanics—and labels it “racist.”

To accomplish this feat, Suitts ignores the entire history of school choice prior to 1954, ignores inconvenient facts since 1954, pulls quotes by choice advocates out of context, and ignores all the research on the effects of school choice on racial integration. He also has to conflate debates over tactics to achieve racial integration with disagreement over the goal of racial integration without ever stopping to analyze which tactics were actually more likely to achieve that goal.

The History of School Choice

The title of Suitts’ column claims the “roots of the modern school choice movement lie in racism.” Conveniently for his narrative, he doesn’t start the history of school choice with Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man” (1791) or John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (1859) or even any of the other philosophers, economists, or public intellectuals writing about a market in education in the early 1900s.

Instead, Suitts wants to start the clock with Southern segregationists trying to get around the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. Except he doesn’t give the full history there either. Suitts ignores the existence segregationists and integrationists on both sides of the school choice debate.

Yes, some segregationists wanted to open private segregation academies funded via vouchers. But it’s also true that integrationists were already using private schools as a means to foster racial integration while the public system was segregated. Moreover, many segregationists, like those running the state’s teachers’ union, the Virginia Education Association (VEA), opposed voucher plans because they feared choice would lead to racially integrated schools. They had already found ways to skirt Brown by redrawing district boundaries along racial lines.

As historian Phil Magness and professor Chris Surprenant detailed in a recent academic paper, the Charlottesville, Va., school district and VEA officers publicly opposed a proposed voucher because if “any White parents withdrew their children for any reason, it would open up an enrollment space that a Black student could then claim with the backing of court ordered integration,” thereby leading to the so-called “negro engulfment” (the Charlottesville public school district attorney’s term) of the public schools.

Ignoring history that does not support your modern political narrative is intellectually dishonest.

Public schooling and school choice policies are both tools to provide education. Segregationists and integrationists alike attempted to use those tools to further their own goals. If school choice should be considered suspect because of the segregationists who supported it, then public schooling has much more to account for.

Of course, we should evaluate policies on their effects today, not the intent of some people proposing them half a century ago.

Milton Friedman Opposed Segregation

Not only does Suitts distort the history of school choice, he distorts the views of its modern champion, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman. In addition to unfairly lumping in Friedman—an avowed opponent of segregation—with segregationists, Suitts takes a quote out of context to smear Friedman, writing that Friedman “acknowledged that vouchers would create a system where there could be ‘exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools. Parents can choose which to send their children to.’”

Sounds pretty damning, right? In context, however, Friedman was arguing that school choice would ultimately lead to greater racial integration. As Magness and Surprenant explain:

Friedman noted that voucher-like proposals had “recently been suggested in several southern states as a means of evading the Supreme Court ruling against segregation.” This discovery concerned him to the point that he initially concluded “that this possible use of the proposal was a count against it” and “that it was a particularly striking case of the possible defect,” acknowledged in the paper, that vouchers could exacerbate class distinctions. Far from exhibiting negligence of the potential use of vouchers by segregationists, Friedman was both aware of these problems and directly considered their implications to his argument.

Further consideration to this end led him to believe that vouchers would ultimately undermine this stated segregationist use. In that same extended note, Friedman wrote that he “deplore[d] segregation and racial prejudice,” and that “so long as the schools are publicly operated, the only choice is between forced nonsegregation and forced segregation; and if I must choose between these evils, I would choose the former as the lesser”. But he pointed to this choice as symptomatic of a state monopoly on K–12 education, which in turn, constrained the question to only these two outcomes, one of which was ethically intolerable. He argued that permitting a competitive scenario in which some schools were segregated, some schools were integrated, and options existed between the numerous offerings would shift the choice onto parents as to where to send their children. In due time, Friedman predicted, this introduction of choice would undermine segregation by rendering it economically and politically untenable to maintain.

Friedman concluded that in a system of school choice, eventually “the mixed schools will grow at the expense of the nonmixed, and a gradual transition will take place.”

This is a testable hypothesis, but Suitts has demonstrated no interest in testing it. Fortunately, others have.

School Choice Leads to Greater Racial Integration

There have been seven studies that have examined the effect of private school choice policies (e.g., vouchers) on racial integration. Six found positive effects and one found no statistically significant difference. This shouldn’t be surprising because our residentially assigned public school system is still highly racially stratified.

Brown v. Board ended de jure segregation, but because public schools are assigned based on the location of your home, they are still highly segregated de facto along socio-economic and racial lines. School choice policies empower families to cross those invisible lines, fostering greater racial integration.

In other words: Friedman was right.

Suitts’ attack on Friedman confuses tactics (choice or residential assignment) for goals (segregation or desegregation). Choice may have been a tool used by some segregationists half a century ago, but today it’s primarily a tool used by low-income black and brown families to enroll their children in schools that better meet their needs.

For example, the largest school choice program in the nation is Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program, which serves more than 100,000 students from low-income families, 72 percent of whom are black, Hispanic, or mixed race. In a recent survey, 9 out of 10 Florida scholarship families expressed satisfaction with their chosen school. It’s no wonder then that 66 percent of blacks and 67 percent of Hispanics say that they support tax-credit scholarship policies.

Ironically,  in his fight against the rights of families of color  to choose their schools, it is Suitts who is standing in the schoolhouse door.