In recent weeks, the issue of private school vouchers has taken center stage in debates over the future of American education. Policy proposals to use public funds for private school tuition vouchers have a long history, dating back to a seminal 1955 essay by Milton Friedman. Over the last twenty-five years, small voucher programs have been established in several states, including Indiana, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin, as well as in Washington, D.C.
But the voucher issue took on a new urgency after the election of Donald Trump, given his campaign promise to establish a $20 billion national voucher program. When Trump unveiled his first proposed budget earlier this year, he partnered his program with massive cuts to existing federal education programs, taken largely from funding streams that support the education of students living in poverty. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, is a long-time partisan of vouchers and has been cheerleader in chief for Trump’s education budget cuts and proposed voucher program.
Public education advocates have taken on the Trump-DeVos push for vouchers. The liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) issued two important research briefs, Vouchers Are Not A Viable Solution For Wide Swaths of America and The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers. In her keynote speech to the American Federation of Teachers’ recent biannual education conference and in her Huffington Postcolumn, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten addressed the “past and present” of school vouchers, condemning such programs as “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”
Both CAP and Weingarten highlighted events around one of the five school desegregation cases that were rolled into the Supreme Court’s historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County.
With the backing of Virginia’s powerful segregationist senator Harry F. Byrd, the white elite of Prince Edward County defied the Brown decision by closing the entire public school system and diverting public education funds into vouchers to be used at a segregated private academy that only white students could attend. As the battles over the implementation of Brown played out, African-American students were denied access to education for five years in a row. Prince Edward County thus stands as an exemplar of the post-Brown segregationist defiance of school integration and the pivotal role of school vouchers in that effort.