In 1963, he reported, South Carolina Gov. Donald S. Russell (D) “announced that the state would provide parents with vouchers or ‘scholarship grants’ to send their children to nonsectarian private schools. Russell did not mention race. He argued that vouchers would require public schools to compete with private ones and ‘this competition would stimulate progress in public education.’ ” A state-supported committee said vouchers in South Carolina then “would offer to all our citizens the broadest possible freedom of choice.” That’s the way we school choice supporters talk today.
Suitts also quoted T.E. Wannamaker, founder of the South Carolina Independent School Association in 1965, saying of his private school organization: “We’re here because we have convictions and we’re going to stay. It’s not token integration we’re concerned about, but the effects mass integration will have on our schools in the future.” According to Suitts, Wannamaker also said: “Many (Negroes) are little more than field hands.”
Some of the arguments used by segregationists then, Suitts revealed, were borrowed from the intellectual father of today’s school choice movement, Milton Friedman. The University of Chicago economist said that in education, “competitive private enterprise is likely to be far more efficient in meeting consumer demand.” Segregationists used Friedman’s arguments without mentioning race to prevent censure from federal judges enforcing the Supreme Court’s anti-segregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education.
I am as chilled by this as Suitts is, but I think some of his conclusions go too far. He said what Southern states were doing to preserve segregation “is exactly what today’s advocates and supporters of vouchers seek to implement: no compulsory ‘race-mixing’ in schools and no mention of any intent to discriminate.”
I prefer nonprofit charter schools to vouchers and tax credits as a way to improve schooling. There aren’t nearly enough good private school spaces to fill the need. Nationally, private schools served only 10 percent of students in 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That number is not much higher in the South.
Spencer A. Jordan, executive director of the South Carolina Independent School Association, said his group today rejects the values of Wannamaker, its founder. “All of our member schools embrace diversity and celebrate inclusivity,” Jordan said. “We relish the fact that minorities of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are fully welcome in our schools.”
The most successful charter school networks have raised the level of school achievement for impoverished children. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 59 percent of public charter school students in 2016 were Hispanic or black. Suitts told me he recognizes those gains and realizes that some charter school opponents discredit such schools “simply because the success was done in charter schools, not regular schools.”
He acknowledged that racial balance in schools is no longer a political priority in the United States. That will take a long time to change. “But I do not want governments to continue to help assure that the tide will never turn,” he told me. “I believe there is some basis for my hope that up-and-coming generations, for whom race is not such a marker of inferiority or superiority, can make some real progress in desegregating schools.”
I share his hope, but I think the charter school movement, particularly in states such as Texas, has had a hand in raising the level of instruction for students of all races. Segregationists once uttered some of the same school choice phrases now in use, but there are enough black parents supporting vouchers and charters now to indicate that we are in a better place than we were then.