PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR school vouchers is on the rise, with 58 percent of respondents in a 2019 Education Next survey favoring the policy. Within the Democratic Party, opinions tend to split along racial lines: Most African-American and Hispanic Democrats support vouchers and charter schools, while most white Democrats oppose them. Indeed, the beneficiaries of currently existing voucher programs draw disproportionately from historically disadvantaged communities. Programs such as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship draw some 70 percent of their participants from African American and Hispanic households, and studies from several cities--Cleveland, Milwaukee, Washington--suggest that voucher systems improve racial diversity.
These trends have spawned something of an existential crisis among teachers unions. As a result we have texts like Overturning Brown, in which attorney Steve Suitts aims to rebrand the entire school choice movement as a surreptitious attempt to reimpose racial segregation. Suitts once wrote a book that bent over backward to absolve the New Deal-supporting Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black of his youthful membership in the Alabama Ku Klux Klan; now he has written a book that bends over backward to do the reverse to school choice.
Suitts begins with a kernel of historical evidence. In the immediate aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, several Southern states attempted to circumvent the desegregation order by shuttering their public schools. They often paired this approach with subsidies for white children to attend private "segregation academies" byway of private donations, preferential tax credits, public tuition grants, and similar voucher-like mechanisms. In Suitts' mind, this episode indelibly stains school choice with a segregationist legacy, no matter the modern movement's intentions or outcomes.
Apart from its underlying genetic fallacy, this is an exceptionally flimsy origin story for school choice. More than a century before Brown, such liberal theorists as Thomas Paine, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill sketched out precursors to the modern voucher concept. The policy's earliest practical examples can be traced to the still-existent town tuitioning systems of rural New England, implemented in the decades after the Civil War.
To build a link to segregation, Suitts must ignore these precursors and instead focus on the timing of an influential 1955 article on the economics of school competition by Milton Friedman...