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For #BlackHistoryMonth let’s remember the racist history of school vouchers


And we paid him not to

Earlier in 2019 local investigative reporting showed that after four years and $40 million, the state’s voucher program- the Louisiana’s Scholarship Program- had produced not just ineffective but even negative student results. Specifically, the report showed that participating students generally had lower scores on state standardized tests than their public-school peers and that over 60% of students with vouchers were at private schools that would have been rated either “D” or “F” if in the public school system.

The one thing the program seemed to be successful in, however, was propping up private schools that otherwise would not exist without cash from the state. Louisiana is one of 30 states that offers a school voucher program. Administered by the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA), vouchers can take the form of tuition grants for either private or religious schooling, an education savings account or a tax credit scholarship. Louisiana offers a version of all three.

Earlier this year at the State of the Union Address, the 45th President- with a cute little Black girl in tow- stated that “the time has come to pass school choice for America’s children”. This was a nod to the Secretary of Education’s proposal to provide $5 billion in federal tax cuts for voucher-like programs and a replay of the popular narrative that school choice and fleeing public schools is good for Black kids.

“The one thing the program seemed to be successful in… was propping up private schools that otherwise would not exist.”

In the same year, it was revealed that $40 million didn’t yield the promised academic gains in one state, the Secretary of Education proposes to funnel $5 billion dollars into similar programs across the country. In this era of “accountability,” one would think policymakers would cite Louisiana as a reason to re-evaluate this program and pause, if not roll back, investments. But school vouchers are as alive as ever and expanding. What gives?

As it turns out school voucher programs as we have in Louisiana are doing exactly what they were designed to do: maintain a segregated and unequal school system by shuffling public resources away from public schools and into white segregated and private schools. The original purpose was not to increase educational access and gains for Black children, which is why they haven’t. And though staunch voucher advocates trip over themselves coming up with new ways to claim otherwise, they know the truth.

 

Origins: Backlash to Civil Rights

Vouchers are a part of a long American tradition of denying Black children education and hoarding public resources for white communities. Their very first purpose was to enable white flight from public schools rather than integrate after the Brown v. Board decision of 1955.

 The first school voucher program was created in Prince Edward County, VA. Instead of putting their efforts towards peaceful integration, the county cut funding for public schools by 80%. Four years later it closed down the entire public school system. White families were then given “tuition grants” to attend private “segregation academies” that did not accept Black children. Black families could not get these tuition grants and were not allowed to attend schools in other (white) districts. During this time, Black families had to jump through hurdles to provide their children with an education. For Black children who couldn’t fight for a seat in a classroom, they left school altogether.

 Across the South, states followed Virginia’s lead and erected their own segregation academies paid for with local tax money. Between 1958 and 1969 Louisiana passed 4 education grant statutes to divert public money to private schools and established around 18 private segregation academies. A good amount of these schools still exist. Private schools in New Orleans doubled during that period. And a whole segregated school district- the Plaquemines Parish School System- was allowed to form. In 1962 the Louisiana Financial Assistance Commission was created and facilitated the transfer of millions of dollars of public wealth into these white segregated schools. This remains one of their functions today. A Black family eventually sued the commission (Poindexter v. Louisiana Financial Assistance Commission (1967)) but by the time these practices were declared illegal, the damage had already been done and remains with us to this day.

From Louisiana Budget Project (May 2019)

So, instead of ending racist school policy and sharing, white families burned the segregated public school system down and took public money to build a segregated private school system. When public school districts became majority Black, across the country local counties/ parishes, school districts and legislatures made sure they were underfunded and barred Black children from going anywhere else. 

These are the roots of a program voucher advocates say will increase equity and educational opportunities for Black children.

-Via Giphy

The Okie Doke: Change who delivers the check, not who gets it

By the 1980’s you couldn’t be explicitly racist in your support for school segregation and public wealth theft. New narratives and transfer schemes then emerged to justify the continued transfer of public wealth to white and private schools. Gone were the days of public chants of “segregation now, tomorrow and forever”. We are no longer (loudly, anyways) at state legislatures using the fear of “race mixing” or learning with “inferior” children to argue for school policy. 

Yet the beliefs and values upholding this system: that anything white is better and safe, anything Black is inferior and dangerous and public money is only for white people- remains intact in voucher policy in coded language. No matter what they call it, there’s a clear through line from “tuition grants” to get away from “chaotic integrated (read Black) schools” to using “opportunity scholarships” to “escape” “failing public (read Black) schools”. Black and low-income families of color were now told that any school where they were the majority was “failing”, that they were “trapped” and deserved the “freedom” of “choice” to escape their bad Black schools. 

For two decades school boards and state legislatures used vouchers to keep Black children in underfunded and struggling schools. And now we’re supposed to believe that these same vouchers will correct this injustice. Yet, instead of giving all “trapped” Black families direct public financial assistance to attend or build their own better schools like they gave to white families, only a handful of Black children are permitted to enter a lottery and gamble for a seat next to a white child. (And I have not heard of Louisiana or any other state giving a Black community public money to open a private K-12 school system without state regulation. If there are examples of this please let me know) While resources were provided for white families to leave public schools in droves, Black children are given just enough to trickle out. 

From 1962 to the present, no part of the voucher system has radically changed. The only difference is that now we are using Black children to further chip away at the public education system and hand-deliver the check to the people who benefit from this the most.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

-Audre Lorde

Perverse “Success”

And what are the results? To be fair the results aren’t that vouchers are not working. They are doing exactly what they were designed to do. PR stunts featuring cute Black kids would have you believe that this is actually a program for the benefit of Black or low income students. We should not be fooled. Academic gains for Black kids “trapped” in “failing” public schools was only just the latest justification for vouchers not really a main feature. So it’s no surprise, then, that the academic results are lackluster at best. As it turns out, public schools are yielding the same, if not better results than some private schools in the state and contrary to popular racist opinion, a seat next to a white kid isn’t a guaranteed ticket to academic success.

 We should have no confidence that vouchers, as designed, will yield positive outcomes for the mass of Black and low-income students oppressed by a racist school system. Instead of focusing on individual families and creating new hoops for them to jump through for even a mediocre education, we need to confront the real problem of racist school policy. We also need to change the conversation from Black children getting a chance to escape to Black children getting what they are owed. Let us start creating the narratives and transfer schemes to retrieve stolen resources and invest them back into Black education in local public schools. $40 million would be a good place to start.

 See below for a list of Louisiana’s segregation academies and readings:

LOUISIANA’S SEGREGATION ACADEMIES

(See any schools missing from the list? Let us know at open@opennola.org. Share the school name, location, year founded and year closed, if you know.)

School Year Opened
Alexandria Country Day 1969
Bowling Green School 1969
Caddo Community School 1969
Claiborne Academy 1969
False River Academy 1969
Glenbrook School 1966
Grawood Christian School 1966
Glenbrook School of Minden 1970
Guy Beuche 1969
LeJeune Academy 1969
Livonia Academy 1969
River Oaks School 1969
Old River Academy 1969
West End Academy 1969
Prytania Private School 1960
False River Academy 1969
Tenth Ward Private School 1969
Plaquemines Parish School System: 1966
  • Promised Land Academy (East Side School Association)
  • Delta Heritage Academy (Buras School Association)
  • River Oaks Academy (Belle Chasse School Association)
  • McBride Academy (Port Sulphur School Association)

 Read up here:

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