Issue 92 - May 27, 2004


Cover Story:

Vouchers - The Right's Final Answer to Brown

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A direct line runs from the “segregation academies” of the post-Brown South and today’s corporate-invented school vouchers “movement.”

Both talk the same language: a “freedom of choice” double-speak that would preserve and expand racial and economic privilege. In place of Brown, today’s voucher advocates would subsidize the “choices” that somehow become available in an American social marketplace that has historically devalued Blacks.  They would achieve this unregulated educational supermarket by liquidating the principle and promise of universal, quality public education.

Just as segregationists shut down the public schools of Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1959 in favor of private white and Black academies, today’s voucher advocates openly agitate for defunding urban public schools. The very same rightwing forces that sought to neuter Brown at every stage in its 50-year history now push privatization as a remedy for the misery they have wrought in America’s cities. They aim to profit – literally – from their own crimes.

Printable version of That Dirty Old Vaucherman cartoon.

Rewards for racism

“The crusade for vouchers actually has its roots in an effort to continue segregation,” said Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in a July 7, 2002 column. “By the time of Jimmy Carter's presidency, the parents of segregation academy students were campaigning for tax breaks for private school tuition. They formed the early core of what later became the voucher movement.”

The haste with which southern whites established private schools after 1954 made it impossible to cloak the exodus in euphemisms – this was white flight from physical proximity to Blacks, pure and simple, and the name “segregation academies,” stuck. Whites in the North would react in much the same way when their turn came, opting out of the cities entirely to invest their taxes in quality schools for their own children in the suburbs. Those who remained in places like Boston chose private education over integration. “You saw an immediate drain of white participation from public education, going into parochial and private schools,” said Rev. Graylan Hagler, president of Ministers for Racial, Social, and Economic Justice.  “And ever since, they have attempted to redirect public dollars out of public education and into private schools.”

Racists always find a “freedom” to mask their hatreds. Segregationists in Virginia devised a “freedom of choice” policy in the mid-Fifties to allow white students to transfer out of schools slated for integration. When Prince Edward County whites finally exhausted their legal bag of tricks in 1959, they shut the public schools down and set up a foundation to support the education of whites.

The county schools were among the five cases that had been combined under Brown. The late Wilbur Brookover, a Michigan State University sociologist who testified as an expert in Brown, chronicled the county’s response to the decision:

”The White school foundation…moved rapidly to raise money to establish the Prince Edward Academy, which used a variety of facilities beginning in fall 1959. Permanent Academy facilities for both elementary and secondary students were built soon after. Essentially all of the White children in Prince Edward County were enrolled in the Academy in the next few years. Some of the poor Whites in the county were provided scholarships to pay their children's tuition….

“Although Whites established a private foundation to provide similar opportunities for Black children, many Black county residents and the NAACP refused this on the grounds that it continued essentially the same situation that the Brown decision was supposed to end. Those opposing this effort vocalized their concern by actively working to discourage Black children from signing up for the private schools. In January 1960, the Southside Schools, the name given to the private schools, received an application from one Black student. After that, private school advocates decided to postpone their efforts to educate Black students.”

This was the fatal political flaw in the early segregation academies: their failure to gain Black participation. The Black citizens of Prince Edward County deserve a permanent place of honor for refusing to collaborate in a scheme to undermine their just-won rights to a non-Jim Crow, public education – even when the alternative was to have no public schools at all for five years.

President Lyndon Johnson’s Internal Revenue Service made life difficult for the segregation academies, as detailed in this IRS memorandum:

“The IRS response began in 1965 with the suspension of the issuance of rulings to private schools in order for the Service to consider the effect of racial discrimination on their exempt status. After extensive study, the IRS announced in 1967 that racially discriminatory private schools, which were receiving state aid, were not entitled to exemption under IRC 501(c)(3) based on public policy beginning with the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.”

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court cracked down on backdoor subsidies to segregated private schools in Mississippi. The court ruled, in Norwood v. Harrison, that “free textbooks, like tuition grants directed to students in private schools, are a form of tangible financial assistance benefiting the schools themselves, and the State's constitutional obligation requires it to avoid not only operating the old dual system of racially segregated schools but also providing tangible aid to schools that practice racial or other invidious discrimination.”

In their review of the racist roots of voucher politics, People for the American Way note that President Nixon toyed with the idea of federal aid to parochial schools – “parochiad” – in 1971. Four years later, the far-right Heritage Foundation made its first foray into vouchers, sponsoring a forum on the subject. But it was not until the Reaganites came to power in Washington that the Heritage Foundation proposed attaching vouchers to federal education legislation, in 1981. The problem was, vouchers were still firmly (and correctly) associated with die-hard segregationists. Memories of white “massive resistance” to integration remained fresh, especially among Blacks, who had never demanded vouchers – not even once in all of the tens of thousands of demonstrations over the previous three decades.

Former Reagan Education Secretary William Bennett understood what was missing from the voucher political chemistry: minorities. If visible elements of the Black and Latino community could be ensnared in what was then a lily-white scheme, then the Right’s dream of a universal vouchers system to subsidize general privatization of education, might become a practical political project. More urgently, Bennett and other rightwing strategists saw that vouchers had the potential to drive a wedge between Blacks and teachers unions, cracking the Democratic Party coalition. In 1988, Bennett urged the Catholic Church to “seek out the poor, the disadvantaged…and take them in, educate them, and then ask society for fair recompense for your efforts” – vouchers. The game was on.

The Heritage Foundation was soon joined in voucher agitation by the young, hyper-aggressive Bradley Foundation, of Milwaukee. Bradley and its allies steamrolled through the Wisconsin legislature a voucher program for Milwaukee’s schools, and spent millions of dollars to buy a Black constituency to support it. In 2000, the Bradley, Heritage and Walton Family Foundations unveiled their African American front group: the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), whose job is to put a Black face on a rich, white man’s creation.


New Jersey is a battleground for voucher operatives, the most urban/suburban state in the nation, and a pet interest of John Walton, one of five heirs to the $100 billion Walton (Wal-Mart) family fortune. Walton and local white businessman Peter Denton took a special liking to 30-year-old, then first-term Black Newark City Councilman Cory Booker. With the help of the Bradley-funded Manhattan Institute and a national network of corporate rightwing donors and activists, Booker ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2002, hugely outspending the incumbent. Booker is a founding director of the BAEO and of Newark-based E-3 – Excellent Education for Everyone – the Right’s voucher outpost in New Jersey, founded by Denton, a white Republican. Booker is a nominal Democratic, of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) variety. Indeed, he is the very model of the Black Democratic Trojan Horse that the rich Right now cultivates on a national scale. Publicists from the Manhattan Institute and other rightwing thought-manipulation tanks have dubbed this small but growing rump of Black Democrats the New Black Leaders. Naturally, the corporate media sing the same song.

Rightwing money has accomplished William Bennett’s 1988 mission. They have created out of whole cloth the appearance – if not the reality – of an authentic Black voucher movement where none existed less than a decade ago. However, this spawn of the Bradley, Heritage and Walton Family Foundations (and now funded directly by the Bush Education Department) functions like no other “Black” political current in American history.

Witness the treachery of Dana Rone, Booker’s closest local Black political ally and Vice President of the Newark Public School Advisory Board, who doubles as a “consultant” to the school “choice” outfit, E-3. In March of this year, Rone traveled to the state capital at Trenton to urge that Newark education monies be diverted to private schools.

“As this is a budget committee meeting, I will share a particularly telling statistic. Between Newark and Camden, we share an almost $1 billion budget.  For that we produced approximately 2,000 high school graduates last year….  In plain terms, that’s a staggering cost of $1 million per legitimately proficient high-school graduate.  Such numbers indicate the abuse of two things:  the money the state sends into our urban districts, and the children who are subjected to the system.”

“We are, essentially, paid for our failure, and our customers – the children who live in our districts and who are zoned into our schools – are forced to take what we give them, regardless of whether or not it works for them, or for the community as a whole.”

While authentic Black leadership everywhere struggles to overcome the near-universal underfunding of urban schools – an historic injustice that the New Jersey Supreme Court has ordered the state to correct through the expenditure of billions of dollars – Rone and her cohorts encourage the suburban legislative majority’s deeply ingrained desire to withhold funding. Rone earns her living mouthing free market shibboleths:

“Make money follow children to schools they choose instead of tying school funding to guaranteed populations segregated by zip codes….  And, most importantly, leverage successful private and parochial schools in our communities that have a proven track record of educating minority children at, incidentally, a substantially lower cost than our traditional public system. Tying dollars to children will make us compete for students.  Market forces will lead to more efficient, and effective, use of the aid the state sends us and, ultimately, the improvement of every public school in our district.”

Of course, no voucher program in the nation has proven “successful” by standards that are applied to the public schools.

But what counts is that Rone’s remarks are music to billionaire patron John Walton’s ears, believing as he does that the most fundamental human right, is the right to shop.

Rone mimics her local guru, white businessman and E-3 founder Peter Denton, who takes every opportunity to undermine the court’s Abbott urban funding decision:  “New Jersey's record of huge increases in urban education spending over the last generation, coupled with this lack of results, makes arguments for increased funding more and more difficult to sustain.”

This then, is the Right’s answer to Brown: that urban public education is not worth funding. African Americans should join with the privatizers, put their hopes in the “market,” and abandon demands for equality in the public sphere. 

“For me ladies and gentleman, it’s education by any means necessary,” Rone bizarrely proclaimed to the legislators.  “And in my heart, I know that Malcolm would agree with me.”

From the lips of a corporate mercenary, the words are obscene.

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