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It goes back to the 18th century and has been proposed by reformers on the left and right.
The Center for American Progress (CAP), a leftist advocacy group, released last week a new report titled “The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers.” The report, which was cheered by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and celebrated at its release by Bobby Scott, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, plays fast and loose with the facts to offer a warped and historically inaccurate history of school choice.
Not so long ago, CAP was a civil and reasonably fair-minded progressive voice on education reform. Suffering from a particularly severe case of Trump-induced derangement, however, CAP has more recently offered itself up as part of the education “resistance.” Thus, in January, CAP issued a brief, titled “The DeVos Dynasty: A Family of Extremists,” which mounted personal attacks on the parents, brother, and husband of the nominee for secretary of education.
On Thursday, CAP joined the American Federation of Teachers at the union’s D.C. headquarters to launch a report that sketches the supposedly “sordid history of school vouchers.” In the telling of authors Chris Ford, Stephenie Johnson, and Lisette Partelow, educational vouchers were born of “massive resistance” — the effort by southern states to resist court-ordered desegregation after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling.
The authors explain the oft-told story of Prince Edward County, Va., which sought to thwart desegregation by shuttering its public schools and then issuing vouchers that families could use at segregated private schools. Ford et al. note that, by the late 1960s, there were 200 or more voucher-supported segregation academies in the South, enrolling perhaps 100,000 students. This history is real, problematic, and part of the school-choice story. Of course, in a region that enrolled millions of students and where the overwhelming bulk of “massive resistance” was carried out using strategies that had nothing to do with vouchers, the narrative is wildly incomplete, at best.
But the bigger problem is the odd suggestion that their use by racists amid the extraordinary dynamics of the post-Brown South constitutes the “origin” story of educational vouchers.
It’s more accurate to trace the “origin” of vouchers to Tom Paine, 18th-century pamphleteer and crusader for liberty. In his 1791 collection The Rights of Man, Paine called for giving every poor family “four pounds a year for every child under fourteen years of age” and then “enjoining the parents of such children to send them to school, to learn reading, writing, and common arithmetic; the ministers of every parish, of every denomination to certify jointly to an office, for that purpose, that this duty is performed.” Rather than promote universal education via publicly operated schools, Paine called for giving families the funds and then letting them make the arrangements they saw fit. In other words: a voucher. (He even suggested weighting the vouchers by including a supplementary amount for students in sparsely populated areas.)
If one isn’t inclined to credit Paine, one certainly should credit John Stuart Mill for spelling out the rationale and mechanics of vouchers a century before Brown. In his 1859 book On Liberty, Mill argued:
Were the duty of enforcing universal education once admitted, there would be an end to the difficulties about what the State should teach, and how it should teach. . . If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them.
Mill didn’t just sketch the architecture of the voucher, he even spelled out the risks of a public-school monopoly in the absence of vouchers:
A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; . . . in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind. . . An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus.
Okay, so Paine and Mill spelled all this out more than a century before Milton Friedman penned his seminal piece on school vouchers in 1955. But they didn’t create an operational voucher program — so can the segregationists be credited as the first to put vouchers into practice?
Nope. In fact, the nation’s first educational-voucher program was launched a decade before massive resistance. Commonly known as the “GI Bill,” it provided a voucher to help returning World War II veterans pursue post-secondary education at the college of their choice. Indeed, as the speechwriter for former Obama secretary of education Arne Duncan has written, the GI Bill was “essentially a government educational voucher with no strings attached.” Indeed, the GI Bill’s vouchers became the model for the Pell Grant program (which today is a voucher endorsed by CAP) when it was created as part of the Higher Education Act in 1965.
As academics Thomas Good and Jennifer Braden have observed in their book The Great School Debate: Choice, Vouchers, and Charters:
Historically, vouchers have been seen in various forms. The highly successful GI bill that Congress adopted at the end of World War II provided government payment (i.e., vouchers) to veterans to support college costs at the institution of their choice. Similarly, vouchers have taken the form of food stamps and payments to supplement rent in the private housing market and in programs like Medicaid and Medicare.
And that brings up the strangest point of all — that CAP’s report skips past all of the social programs that the Left has long championed that have been instrumental in birthing the contemporary notion of vouchers, in education and elsewhere. After all, even as segregation academies were operating in the South, staffers in Lyndon Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity were suggesting that voluntary vouchers would be a better tool than forced busing to pursue desegregation. Yale’s James Forman Jr. has written in “The Secret History of School Choice: How Progressives Got There First”:
Vouchers — the idea that the state would give families a sum of money that they could use to enroll their child at the public or private school of their choice — had been largely ignored until its revival by 1960s liberals. Those progressives who endorsed vouchers did so for many of the same reasons that had led others to advocate for freedom schools, free schools, and community control. Principal among them was anger at how inner-city schools had failed black children.
Vouchers were seized upon by racists as one of the many tools they used to resist desegregation. That much is true. But that’s only a small piece of a much larger story. Vouchers have long been proposed as a tool to empower families, temper the reach of the state, democratize access to education, and offer better options to those failed by the state. It’s misguided, misleading, and historically inaccurate to suggest that this sorry experience is somehow the true genesis story of school vouchers.
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