The Center for American Progress’s (CAP) recent research brief, “The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers,” highlights a dark period in the history of voucher programs. Following Brown v. Board of Education, many Southern states established voucher, or “tuition grant,” programs for white students to attend segregated private schools when public school systems were ordered to desegregate. The brief argues that it is crucial to acknowledge and learn from this historical context when considering education policy today, in particular, as civil rights protections tied to federal funding were established during that difficult era.
The piece elicited wide ranging feedback—including a response from Neal McCluskey at Cato asserting that CAP’s report ignored that private school vouchers are “extremely popular with African Americans.” It makes sense that black and brown families, too often lacking options beyond segregated, under resourced, and underperforming schools, would want alternative options for their children. In fact, Americans of all backgrounds tend to be strong supporters of public school choice options. A 2015 PDK/Gallup poll shows that public school choice is popular. Sixty-four percent of the general public, and 68 percent of African-American respondents, supported allowing students to “choose which public schools in the community the students attend, regardless of where they live,” and 64 percent also favored “the idea of charter schools.”
But Cato’s assertion that vouchers in particular are “extremely popular with African Americans” suffers from oversimplification for purposes of convenience. The Cato piece cites results from the most favorable question for proponents of private school vouchers in Education Next’s 2016 poll, that 64 percent of African Americans—and 53 percent of the general public—support offering “a tax credit for individual and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools.” Other, more complete questions from the same poll tell a far less favorable story about private school vouchers: Only 31 percent of the general public supported using “government funds to pay the tuition of low-income students who choose to attend private schools,” with less support from every subgroup (even though sample limitations did not give us specific results for African Americans).
The 2015 PDK/Gallup poll that showed support for public school choice simultaneously challenges assertions of voucher popularity. Only 33 percent of African Americans, and 31 percent of respondents overall, favored “allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense.” These conflicting results indicate two things: 1) the evidence does not support the blanket statement that vouchers are “extremely popular with African Americans,” and 2) when respondents understand that vouchers divert public money to private schools, support for these proposals plummets. Even more indicative than polling is the widespread failure of statewide voucher ballot measures. For the past thirty years, across six different states, every voucher ballot measure has failed. Moreover, Cato—an organization without a single full-time black scholar on staff—is hardly the best qualified place to speak on behalf of the black community.
No matter their formulation, all private school voucher programs have the same economic function. Tax credit scholarships, traditional vouchers, and education savings accounts all divert public resources away from public schools to pay tuition at private schools. And when the public is aware of this information they do not support it.
The design of many school voucher programs fail to protect and uplift vulnerable students, and too often benefit the already privileged.
Beyond polling data, the design of many school voucher programs fail to protect and uplift vulnerable students, and too often benefit the already privileged. We can look to Indiana as an example of this. Initially launched in 2011, the Indiana School Choice Program was billed as a way to help poor and minority children escape bad public schools. Just two short years later, then-Governor Mike Pence and the Indiana Legislature raised the income limits to include more affluent families and removed the requirements that voucher students first attend public schools. Today, over half of Indiana voucher recipients have no record of ever attending a public school, the percentage of white voucher recipients has increased from 46 to 60 percent, the percentage of black recipients has dropped from 24 to 12 percent, and the students receiving vouchers are increasingly suburban and middle class. And because K-12 voucher accepting institutions aren’t necessarily subject to the same rigorous civil rights laws as public schools, students attending them often do not have strong protections against discrimination.
Earlier this year, The Century Foundation documented several schools in North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program that openly discriminated against students by religion and LGBTQ status, charged additional fees that excluded poor children from gifted and dual enrollment programs, employed racially and religiously discriminatory dress codes, and used textbooks that—among other things—offered sympathetic portrayals of the KKK and whitewashed slavery. We should not expect for federal involvement to improve this civil rights dilemma, as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has testified before Congress that states should “set up the rules around that.” And while the data on voucher student achievement is complicated, the most recent studies of three of the largest programs—Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio—and in the nation’s only federally funded program in Washington, D.C., showed that students accepting a voucher and transferring to a private school fared worse academically than their counterparts who did not. Clearly, none of these issues benefit black people.
While voucher programs—and those that advocate for them—certainly aren’t inherently racist, they maintain the potential to bolster segregation and protect discriminatory practices if we fail to contend with their checkered history and their potential shortcomings before implementation.
That’s why it is critical that pundits, policymakers, and citizens remember that the central story in CAP’s report is recent history, experienced by generations of black Americans. While voucher programs—and those that advocate for them—certainly aren’t inherently racist, they maintain the potential to bolster segregation and protect discriminatory practices if we fail to contend with their checkered history and their potential shortcomings before implementation. Organizations that push vouchers and tax credit scholarship programs by using overstated black community support to sustain their case—but also fail to advocate for solutions to improve and elevate public schools where the vast majority of black children learn—seem more committed to the principles of privatization than to equitable education.