The Myth of School Vouchers and Racism

Many have tried to link vouchers and school choice to racism, but it can’t be done without a tortured reading of the law and civil rights history. So it was a surprise to see two civil rights attorneys at an elite American university doing exactly that last week. The attorneys, Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin of the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights, penned “The Ugly Truth About Vouchers,” where they argue vouchers are a tool of modern racism.

The authors begin linking school choice to racism by claiming private schools “are permitted to discriminate against students on the basis of race,” which is simply not true. Surely, they know better. As determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Runyon v. McCrary (1976), no private school in the U.S. is permitted to discriminate based on race, color or national origin.

Next, Haddix and Doroson argue there are “historical links between racism and private schools” and, thus, the attempt to attach vouchers and school choice to the civil rights movement is “a twisted irony.”

Indeed, as they point out, many private schools across the nation grew in enrollment during the era of desegregation, as white students fled public schools that were enrolling black students. But to draw the link between racism and private schools is to miss the more important historical precursor: American public schools were themselves rooted in racism. African-Americans waited 235 years after the founding of the first public high school to get their first public high school. It would be another 84 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board (1954) and nearly 20 more years before real integration efforts were made.

Don’t forget, public school districts and elected officials fought racial integration every step of the way. While it is true some parents jumped ship to private schools, some areas, such as Poquoson, Va., became their own independent districts, zoning African-Americans completely outside city boundaries. Other districts shut themselves down altogether to avoid integration. Furthermore, many urban areas faced “white flight” as white families segregated themselves into whiter public school enclaves. This segregation in public schools remains largely intact to this day.

After whitewashing this history, the authors point to four rural, North Carolina counties with the highest concentration of black students. Blacks make up 79 to 86 percent of public school enrollment in those counties while private schools there are between 95 and 99 percent white. Whether the authors are correct in their insinuation that racism still motivates private school parents and students, the point they seem intent on missing is that the new voucher plan likely would send many black students to largely white private schools – and thus reduce segregation. How is that racist?

Finally, the authors directly link North Carolina’s recent voucher legislation with racist policies occurring 40-60 years prior. They write, “Private entities that profit from privatizing our tax dollars have not been made to answer for the racist history of their legislation.”

It is a head-scratching statement given the lingering racial segregation in North Carolina along public school district lines. Though the North Carolina student population is 52 percent white and 26 percent black, districts range from 0.03 percent to 95 percent black and 3 percent to 94 percent white. That’s as bad as, or worse than, the racial makeup of the private schools the authors highlight.

Racial Demographics of Select North Carolina Districts
County/City District Student Population
White Black
North Carolina 52% 26%
Weldon City 3% 95%
Halifax County 4% 86%
Bertie County 15% 82%
Northampton County 15% 80%
Hertford County 16% 79%
Durham County 19% 51%
Orange County 64% 16%
Cherokee County 90% 1.7%
Haywood County 89% 1%
Clay County 93% 0.9%
Madison County 94% 0.3%
*Source: North Carolina State Board of Education, Department of Public Instruction

Those stark differences often surface in districts right next to each other. Take Orange and Durham counties. Orange County – home of UNC-Chapel Hill – is 64 percent white and 16 percent black. Its neighbor, Durham County, is 19 percent white and 51 percent black.

The authors’ statements are even more disappointing when you realize the great work the UNC Center for Civil Rights has done in highlighting the inequalities facing low-income and minority students. Last year, the center’s report, “The State of Exclusion,” blasted public school zoning policies. “Nor does everyone have equal access to the community’s best schools due to school assignment policies,” it wrote. “Some counties have multiple school districts, a situation which often aggravates disparities based upon spatial segregation.”

The report found “failing schools” were the closest school to 48 percent of all black students in the state, while high-poverty schools were the closest to 68 percent. These rates were double the statewide average for all students.

Given the existing racial and income disparities, the most likely beneficiaries of North Carolina’s voucher program – put on hold last week by a court injunction – are minority students. This is exactly what we saw in Florida after the state passed the Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Today, 70 percent of scholarship students attending private schools are black or Hispanic. Half of the students come from single-parent households, while the average scholarship student lives in a family with a household income just 9 percent above poverty.

Isn’t this exactly the student population Haddix, Dorosin and the UNC Center for Civil Rights wish to help in North Carolina?

-Patrick Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is the Public Affairs Manager for Step Up For Students, the non-profit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

This first appeared on redefinED.

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