The Trump administration’s support for public vouchers has touched off a debate on whether they are good for African-Americans students, with the consensus being that they are mainly detrimental to their academic progress.
On July 13, U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) delivered a keynote address entitled “Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers” at a seminar sponsored by the progressive Center for American Progress at the headquarters for the American Federation of Teachers.
Scott briefly detailed the history of Prince Edward County, Va.’s attempt in 1959 to shut down its school system rather than to desegregate it, known as massive resistance, and the municipality’s attempt to support a local White-only academy with taxpayer dollars.
Scott, who is the ranking Democrat on the Committee for Education and Workforce Development, said the movement toward embracing vouchers on a national level is not new.
“We’ve seen this trend before,” Scott said. “Public education is a compelling community interest and it is the responsibility of government to provide universal high-quality education for all students.”
Scott said that the advocacy for vouchers at that time must be viewed in the context of government sanction of discrimination in the areas of housing, economic development and criminal justice.
“The [discriminatory] practices were the result of government action,” the lawmaker said. “Government created the problem and government can solve the problem.”
Scott said that the purpose of vouchers is to create a well-funded private school system while allowing deep cuts to public school budgets. He said that the Trump administration, with the support of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, wants to give billions of dollars for vouchers while slashing support for public schools.
The Trump budget would cut funding to the U.S. Department of Education by more than 13 percent, or $9 billion, while providing $1.25 billion for school choice, including $250 million for vouchers.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1964 ruled that Prince Edward County’s actions to support private school vouchers was unconstitutional, and ordered that it must re-open its public schools. The county ultimately re-opened its public schools, but vouchers were funded at a higher level by the county’s board of supervisors.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965 secured the county’s public schools system, but vouchers continued to help White students attend private White academies under various schemes for decades.
Neil Campbell is the director of innovation for the K-12 Education policy team at the Center for American Progress. In an interview with the AFRO, Campbell said that while the massive resistance movement is long gone and “the program was found to be unconstitutional, the effects continue into the present day.”
Campbell said that in many places, two educational systems exist: a strong, well-funded private education system, and a struggling, ill-funded public education component. He did note that there were voucher programs in operation in cities such as Milwaukee and Cleveland that were race neutral, but those were exceptions to the rule.
Campbell said that a number of studies have shown that vouchers do not improve the educational experience, noting jurisdictions such as Louisiana, Ohio and the District of Columbia. The District has had a voucher system in place for several years despite the objections of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).
Norton’s chief complaint is that Congress should not impose vouchers on the District, and city residents should decide if they want the program.
Markus Batchelor represents Ward 8 on the D.C. State Board of Education and agrees with Campbell.
“Statistics in D.C. show that vouchers don’t help Black students at all,” Batchelor told the AFRO. “As a matter of fact, because of them, Blacks students get further behind. They take resources away from the D.C. public schools.”
Campbell doesn’t believe that voucher proponents necessarily have racist motives, but are simply ill-informed.
“They aren’t considering the lesson of history,” he said. “There are unintended consequences that can harm kids.”
Campbell warned that if vouchers become a national policy, as Trump and DeVos want, the nation’s education could end up like that of Chile. Campbell said that Chile has a three-tier system consisting of a public school system for the poor, subsidized-private schools that are attended by middle-class students, and designated-administration schools that are public but are financed by wealthy corporations.
“That is something that we could see here,” Campbell said.
Batchelor said that public schools must be supported and improved.
“We must not give up on public education. In D.C., we have a federally-mandated voucher system that was forced on us and it isn’t working well.”