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School choice’s legacy: Segregation or integration?

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Phillip Magness of the American Institute for Economic Research exposes how opponents of educational freedom’s claims that the history of school choice is tainted by racism not only are factually incorrect, but that it was choice antagonists who fought to preserve segregation in public education.

After economists such as Milton Friedman began touting support in the 1950s for funding mechanisms that give parents the opportunity to choose better schools for their children, Magness writes that “segregationist hard-liners recognized the likely outcomes and began attacking school choice as an existential threat to their white-supremacist order.”

He includes how hard-liners in Virginia attempted all sorts of chicanery to keep the state’s public schools segregated, including closing Charlottesville’s Venable Elementary School in 1958, which “transferred its white student body to a makeshift network of private classrooms.”

When courts struck down that strategy, school board attorney John S. Battle Jr. suggested “white schools could desegregate on paper, then use zoning and enrollment caps to block black students’ transfer applications.”

Were Battle with us today, would he recognize student-assignment policies and busing plans created with little or no parental input as residuals of the policies he suggested that school board members long ago follow?

Would he see these modern day policies as designed to deny diversity in classrooms that help close academic – and, by extension, opportunity – gaps between Black and white students?

How else could we describe Jefferson County Public Schools’ policies in these matters that have done little, if anything, to close those gaps?

In fact, not only have the gaps widened in key academic areas, but they are largest in the district’s East End schools where white students are achieving among the highest levels in JCPS while Black students struggle even more than their inner-city peers.

Magness claims Battle admitted the only policy that could stymie his push to stop integration of public schools was a “tuition-grant bill” being debated at the time by the Virginia General Assembly.

Battle wrote that tuition grants – similar to today’s mechanisms which financially assist parents without the means to enroll their children in schools of their choice – would result in the “departure of white pupils from their public schools [which] will make integration much easier to accomplish.”

Public education interests, afraid their funding would be imperiled, joined forces with Battle to stop the tuition-grants program.

An internal memo circulated by a Charlottesville teachers’ group and labeled as a plan to “contain integration” warned the voucher program attempts “to get as many pupils as possible so that integration will be as extensive as possible, thus making public schools unacceptable to as many people as possible.”

The cat really leapt out of the bag, though, with a 1964 editorial in the Virginia Education Association’s newsletter declaring parents were using “grants to send their children to integrated schools which the entire purpose … was to avoid.”

While such shocking reporting of what teachers’ unions said six decades ago certainly doesn’t indict all their union descendants, it does fly in the face of charges still being made in the 21st century.

National teachers’ union boss Randi Weingarten wrongly asserts, for example, that school choice programs are “slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”

It’s tough to reconcile this statement with the reality of what’s happening to too many minority students in our public system.

No starker reminder is needed than the fact that Kentucky’s Black elementary school students perform even worse than children with learning disabilities on the latest state tests for reading and mathematics.

It’s also difficult to ignore the gap in educational performances between states like Kentucky – where resistance to school choice has held the upper hand – and states embracing more options for parents.

Florida, for instance, offers parents many school choice alternatives while significantly improving academic outcomes for students across the board – especially minorities.

It’s impossible to make the case that Kentucky’s K-12 system meets the needs of our minority children, or that school choice is rooted in racism.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

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