On the heels of proposals from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and President Donald Trump to create the first nationwide federal voucher program while slashing funds for public schools and loosening civil rights protections, a new issue brief from the Center for American Progress explores the historical link between private school vouchers and segregationist policies in the United States. The impacts of voucher programs put in place to avoid desegregation still reverberate in the U.S. education system today.
The issue brief centers on the extreme measures taken by Prince Edward County, Virginia, who shut down their public schools for five years rather than desegregate the public schools after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decisions. County officials provided tuition grants—a private school voucher system—for white students to attend Prince Edward Academy, a “segregation academy” that served as a model for other communities in the South. Vouchers supporting these types of schools were eventually ruled unconstitutional but had a lasting impact on public education in communities that operated dual—public and private—school systems where research has shown taxpayers are less inclined to fund the public system.
Fast forward to 2017: President Trump and Education Secretary DeVos have championed a plan to provide federal funding for private school voucher systems nationwide, which would funnel millions of taxpayer dollars out of public schools and into unaccountable private schools—a school reform policy that they say would provide better options for low-income students. Their budget proposal would slash the Education Department’s budget by more than 13 percent—or $9 billion—while providing $1.25 billion for school choice, including $250 million for private school vouchers.
But there is little evidence that Secretary DeVos is considering this policy’s history and including protections for vulnerable students in a potential new federal program. In fact, at a congressional hearing in May, Secretary DeVos declined to say whether she would protect students against discriminatory policies in private schools that receive federal funding through vouchers.
“Policymakers need to acknowledge the historical context of private school vouchers and protect against potential discriminatory consequences from these programs. Modern-day voucher programs are nondiscriminatory on their face but can still exacerbate racial and socio-economic segregation. We should instead be focusing on adequately and equitably funding public education, protecting the rights of vulnerable students, and reducing racial and socio-economic segregation,” said Carmel Martin, executive vice president of policy at the Center for American Progress.
“When considering voucher policy, we must confront its history,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA 3), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “Choice devoid of controls for diversity and civil rights protections for vulnerable students tends to further segregate and negatively impact our most vulnerable students. And in its staunch advocacy in support of vouchers and cuts to public education funding, this Administration has not only failed to confront that history, but also failed to answer important questions about its commitment to protect and promote the civil rights of all students.”