Leftist Ideologues Use Big-Lie Technique to Slam School Choice
Led by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-wing think tank founded by John Podesta, who later served as chairman of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, the political left is attempting to smear the modern school-voucher movement as the offshoot of a racist scheme to keep black children in segregated Southern public schools in the 1960s.
That is such a gross distortion as to be a damnable lie.
CAP’s propagandists focus on the shameful attempt of one Virginia jurisdiction, rural Prince Edward County, to thwart court-ordered desegregation by closing its public schools in 1959. While the county’s whites could obtain public tuition grants to attend an all-white academy under a hideously misnamed “freedom of choice” plan, black civil rights leaders declined to participate in taking such handouts obviously designed to perpetuate a segregated system. Not until President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy joined Virginia leaders in marshaling support behind a stopgap Prince Edward Free School in 1963 did black children have access to formal schooling. In 1964, the Supreme Court finally ordered the Prince Edward public schools reopened.
A CAP-affiliated “news” blog called ThinkProgress opened the smear campaign on January 10, 2017, by praising U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) for exposing the “racially charged history” of school choice vouchers. That blast came in the context of Warren harshly criticizing Betsy DeVos, who was then the education secretary nominee. Warren insinuated because DeVos is strongly pro-voucher, she would surely would be weak on civil rights enforcement.
On July 12, CAP followed up with a turgid 11-page white paper titled, “The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers,” which was mostly devoted to the sad Prince Edward saga (as was the ThinkProgress piece).
Hypocrisy alert! Warren herself co-authored a book in 2003 that advocated for a school voucher system, in part to save middle-class families from buying homes beyond their means in order to be zoned to desirable public schools. Moreover, the progressive Senator didn’t envision just a partial subsidy but rather private-choice vouchers paying “the entire cost of educating a child.”
In advocating for a voucher system, was Warren aligning herself with a long-rotting racist scheme? Or is her perception of history no more clear-minded than her unsubstantiated claim of Native American heritage?
As a young writer just out of journalism school, I lived with and through a significant portion of the education history in question, settling into Prince Edward residency as a news-bureau chief for the Richmond Times-Dispatch just as the Free School was coming to fruition and remaining there through the death throes of the unwise and unjust school-closing scheme. Therefore, I am confident I know more about what went down in Southside Virginia than Elizabeth Warren ever will.
In regular chats with town and county officials, police officers, everyday citizens, and leaders of the local black community (notably, the Rev. L. Francis Griffin), I came to understand that most whites saw the civic and social structure they and their forbears had always known crumbling around them. Fear, more than hatred, occupied their hearts. In adopting the wrong-headed course of closing the public schools, their leaders took their cue from the policy of “massive resistance” to racial integration espoused by Virginia Sen. Harry F. Byrd—the Democratic boss of a formidable political machine—in the wake of the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Never once did I hear one of Prince Edward’s inner circle mention the voucher concept, first broached by economist Milton Friedman in his 1955 paper “The Role of Government in Education,” as the inspiration for their resort to a phony free-choice plan based on state tuition grants. If they had, the hypocrisy would have been even thicker than Liz Warren’s. Friedman championed universally available private-choice vouchers with the goal of breaking down statist barriers and creating opportunities for all within an educational marketplace. The segregationists’ objective was to use government dishonestly to preserve white privilege.
Any doubt about that in a young reporter’s mind was erased upon awakening August 6, 1964, and finding that a substantial part of Prince Edward’s white adults had gone to local banks in the dead of night to collect $180,000 in tuition-grant payments. The county’s leaders put together this hush-hush payout for whites only because they feared the NAACP was on the verge of securing a court injunction on further payment of tuition grants to Prince Edward residents. Civil rights lawyer Samuel W. Tucker aptly described this sleazy operation as a “midnight raid on the public treasury.”
By complete contrast, the vouchers envisioned by Milton Friedman have advanced in the light of day and with major backing from minority families. Consider:
- An African-American state legislator and Jesse Jackson supporter, Polly Williams, pioneered the advent of private-choice vouchers for disadvantaged Milwaukee schoolchildren in 1990. Choice has expanded greatly in the city and state since then.
- Research studies have shown voucher recipients attending private schools are more likely to be in racially integrated classes than are their peers in public schools.
- Polls have consistently shown that black and Hispanic parents overwhelmingly favor vouchers—and by larger margins than do parents from other racial/ethnic backgrounds.
- When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark 2002 case (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris) vouchers are constitutional, the case before it was from Cleveland, where the vast majority of children benefitting from choice came from low-income black or Hispanic homes.
In truth, vouchers (or “opportunity scholarships”) are impeded by a legacy of bigotry rather than being propelled by one. An honest history lesson CAP could teach—were it interested—would show how anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments inserted into many state constitutions in the late 19th century continue to block some families from freely choosing faith-based schools, Catholic or otherwise. Of course, CAP is blind to that injustice because its allegiance is to those with vested interests in government-monopolized education.
Robert Holland (email@example.com) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.