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As Trump and DeVos Push for Private School Choice, Opponents Highlight Vouchers' Racist Past

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Today, school vouchers—giving students public money to use toward tuition at private schools—are often reserved for needy students: those with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But vouchers were once deployed during the Jim Crow era to perpetuate segregated school systems post Brown v. Board of Education as detailed in a new policy brief from the Center for American Progress, a progressive public-policy research and advocacy organization.

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Understanding how private school vouchers contributed to racial segregation in the nation's schools is crucial, argue the report's authors, as the Trump administration and the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos push for expanding voucher programs.

How Were Vouchers Used to Segregate Schools?

The report highlights a case in Prince Edward County, Va., during the late 1950s and early '60s when public officials effectively cut off funding for public schools, forcing them to close. Under a new school voucher system, white families could use public money to send their children to all-white private schools. (A later Supreme Court ruling made it illegal for private schools to discriminate based on race and keep their tax-exempt status.)

Related story: In States' Private-School Voucher Programs, Few Safeguards Against Discrimination 

Prince Edward County became something of a model for other states, write the brief's authors.

"By 1969, more than 200 private segregation academies were set up in states across the South. Seven of those states—Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—maintained tuition-grant programs that offered vouchers to students in an effort to incentivize white students to leave desegregated public school districts." (The report provides more details on each of those programs.)

The federal government did eventually step in and force Prince Edward County to start funding its public schools, but traces of that discriminatory system are still seen today in the disproportionately large proportion of black students in the public schools and white students in private schools.

Although current voucher programs are not race-based and are often geared toward helping low-income students afford private school tuition, the report's authors argue that such programs "can have the effect of exacerbating racial and socioeconomic segregation."

These are issues that the Trump administration has to confront as it seeks to expand voucher programs, said Rep. Robert Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, speaking at a forum on the topic hosted by the Center for American Progress andthe American Federation for Teachers in Washington.  

"The research is clear that voucher programs do not advance educational equity," he said. "Both the research and the history of the strategy [show] that we have to reject private school vouchers." 

Counterpoint: Vouchers Aren't the Only Thing Segregating Public Schools

But as school choice advocates are often quick to point out, wealthy and middle class white families don't have to rely on private schools to isolate themselves.

"More than six decades after the Brown decision, America's public schools are more segregated than ever. Vouchers and school choice didn't cause that," said Robert Enlow, the president and CEO of EdChoice, in a statement.

"Assigning students to schools based on where they live, not what they need, created a system where quality schools are linked to property values. Those families who can afford to move to 'better' districts do, and those who can't remain in low-performing schools or have to find another way out of the ZIP-assigned structure. It's fundamentally un-American."

As a final note, if we want to go way back into the voucher-policy past, the earliest programs in the United States were created in the mid-1800s in Maine and Vermont for students who lived in small towns and rural areas that didn't have public schools.   

This story was updated to include a quote from Rep. Scott. 

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Photo credit: President Donald Trump listens as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a meeting with parents and teachers on Feb. 14 at the White House.  —Evan Vucci/AP

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