The Anti-Racist History of Vouchers in Virginia

by James A. Bacon

The school choice movement — and vouchers in particular — are portrayed by proponents of public school monopolies as elitist and racist in origin. According to historian Nancy MacLean, the idea for vouchers came out of Virginia’s Massive Resistance to school integration as a way to transfer white children from integrated schools into private “segregation academies.” This widely accepted view is has been little disputed.

Until now. Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, Phillip W. Magness with the American Enterprise Institute says the critics of vouchers have their history backward. The voucher idea originated with economist Milton Friedman as a way to advance integration. Writes Magness: “Virginia’s segregationist hard-liners recognized the likely outcomes and began attacking school choice as an existential threat to their white-supremacist order.”

That’s right, integrationists proposed vouchers as a way to integrate schools, and segregationists opposed them for precisely the same reason.

In 1958 the Venable Elementary School in Charlottesville closed its doors and transferred its white student body to a “makeshift network of private classrooms,” writes Magness. (Magness is not explicit on the point but, presumably, the reconstituted but segregated Venable Elementary remained in the public school system.) After court rulings struck down the strategy, John S. Battle Jr., who led the fight against the NAACP lawsuits, articulated a fallback position: white public schools could desegregate on paper and then use zoning and enrollment caps to block Black students’ transfer applications.

Anti-segregation lawmakers from Northern Virginia proposed vouchers as a way to facilitate integration. Battle saw them as a threat.

If a school receives tuition grants, Battle warned in a speech at Venable, “then any negro who obtains one under this law can seek to enter that school.” If any current students at all-white schools transferred elsewhere, “it will have the effect of leaving many classrooms practically vacant.” The enrollment caps would fail, leading to the “negro engulfment” of Virginia’s white public schools.

If Virginia adopted tuition grants, Battle wrote in a letter to Gov. J. Lindsay Almond, the subsequent departure of white pupils from their public schools will make integration much easier to accomplish.” Battle correctly predicted that the federal courts would soon require private schools to accept black students as a condition of state funding, leading to their integration as well. “I refuse to believe that we should allow a few negroes to run us out of our good white schools,” Battle concluded.

Battle’s message resonated among public-school interests, which understood that conventional public-school funding would be imperiled by vouchers, Magness writes. The Virginia Education Association circulated a transcript of Battle’s remarks to every superintendent in the Commonwealth. Later, the VEA denounced vouchers in its newsletter: “Parents are using grants to send their children to integrated schools which the entire purpose … was to avoid.”

In its rhetoric about race, the VEA has done a 180-degree turn since then. VEA is now in the vanguard of the “woke” movement that purports to fight racism. But the association is, above all other things, a labor union that seeks to preserve its monopoly by thwarting competition. And that means squelching charter schools (publicly funded schools that enjoy a measure of independence from school board diktats), and blocking vouchers, which would allow parents to yank their children from failed schools in favor of a private alternative.

Before the spread of school policies stepped in Critical Race Theory, the white middle-class in Virginia was, for the most part, satisfied with the public schools where they sent their kids. Whites were not clamoring for vouchers. Many Black parents were. The limited vouchers available in Virginia — funded by tax-advantaged philanthropic donations, not tax revenues — are means-tested. The purpose is to give poor. inner-city parents a say about where to send their children.

By contrast, the wokesters’ anti-racism rhetoric is skin deep. Their policies would keep poor Black kids in failing school systems with no recourse. The proffered remedies — hire more teachers and staff, pay them more, build them new schools to work in — are justified in the name of “the kids” but redound primarily to the benefit of VEA and its members.

Next time you hear that vouchers originated as a tool of Massive Resistance, you’ll know the assertion for the rhetorical subterfuge that it is.