President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have proposed cutting the Department of Education budget by more than 13 percent, or $9 billion, while allocating $250 million toward a federally funded voucher program. And while a nationwide K-12 voucher program would be a first-of-its-kind initiative, private school vouchers are nothing new.
In fact, the earliest K-12 voucher programs are rooted in our nation’s disturbing segregationist history, starting in 1959 when schools in the South began allocating vouchers for white students to avoid complying with desegregation orders. It is critical to acknowledge and understand the effects of that history when considering policies today.
Like many districts during the Jim Crow era, Prince Edward County, Virginia, operated two separate school systems for black and white children. White students attended the premier Farmville High School, while black students attended Robert Russa Moton High School, which lacked a cafeteria, gymnasium and proper heating system. After black students organized a strike to demand equal educational facilities, the NAACP took up the case, eventually including it with the case headlined by a family from Topeka, Brown v. Board of Education.
In response to desegregation orders following Brown, Prince Edward County slashed its school budget and then closed its public schools altogether in 1959. Local officials worked with the Virginia General Assembly to create a “tuition grant” program that allocated vouchers for white students to attend segregated private schools or other nearby public schools.
Even after the court forced Prince Edward County to reopen its public schools in 1964, local officials continued to resist funding integrated public schools. Local officials allocated $375,000 for tuition grants that were only available to white students, and just $189,000 to operate its entire integrated public-school system.
The course of events in Prince Edward County provided a blueprint for other communities to avoid integration efforts. By the end of the 1960s, more than 200 private segregation academies had opened in the South, relying on vouchers to cover significant percentages of student tuition, as well as other state resources to operate. Even after vouchers supporting “segregation academies” were deemed unconstitutional, research showed that increases in private school enrollment were accompanied by decreased support for investments in public education.
After decades of improvement, efforts to improve integration on racial and socioeconomic measures have stagnated or moved backward in public schools. Substantial racial and socio-economic segregation continues today, and vast disparities exist between the wealthiest and poorest districts. This is despite what we know about the benefits of integrated schools for the achievement of all students.
Contemporary voucher programs do not share the discriminatory intent of programs from the 1960s, but may still exacerbate racial and socio-economic segregation. In fact, Indiana’s voucher program increasingly benefits white, suburban, middle-class families rather than low-income students: 60 percent of voucher recipients are white, and only 12 percent are black. Indeed, in the United States, vouchers tend to benefit the most advantaged students among those eligible, and in other nations, large-scale voucher programs have contributed to school segregation along socio-economic lines.
The history of private school vouchers and the effect of current programs, even those that are well-intentioned to aid low-income students, should inform today’s advocates and policymakers. However, Trump and DeVos have not acknowledged this history or committed to protect students against harmful unintended consequences as they have championed a plan to funnel public funds into unaccountable private schools through a nationwide voucher system.
In fact, DeVos recently refused to commit the full weight of her department to protecting all students from discrimination in private schools that receive federal funding through vouchers in her testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee.
In the 1960s, the federal government stepped in to defend and protect the rights of minority students — through court decisions, legislation and executive action. Students and families still need the government to play that role today. As Trump and DeVos push for a nationwide voucher program, they should — at the very least— learn from this cautionary history and commit to protecting all vulnerable kids.