The history of school choice in America is lengthy, confusing, and convoluted. This might be the most concise historical account available specifically for Mississippians. I have elected to include the most essential facts about the school choice movement in a two-part post. After the history of school choice in America has been established, I will continue the series by explaining some of the implications of educational research on the movement and how the movement impacts the state of Mississippi. My hope is that Mississippians can educate themselves so that we can make the best decisions for our students as possible.
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that state laws allowing segregated schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. Many southern states responded by establishing policies that allowed students to choose which school they would attend. White students tended to remain in white schools and black students tended to remain in black schools. Eventually, the federal government put pressure on these states to assign students to a school according to geographical locations and mandated school districts provide busing to school for all students.
In 1955, Milton Friedman published a paper titled “The Role of Government in Education”. Friedman, a libertarian, wrote that government was obligated to fund schools but should not have any decision-making power or influence beyond funding. He believed the ultimate goal of society should be to provide as much individual freedom to people as possible. Thus, he advocated for vouchers. Friedman’s vision for vouchers was to allow every student the freedom to attend the school of their choice. He predicted that “a wide variety of schools will spring up to meet the demand” for school choice which would lead to a competitive environment that was “likely to be far more efficient in meeting consumer demands” than any other form of schooling.
Another hot button issue of the 1950s surrounded the controversy of allowing Catholic schools to receive state and federal aid. Catholics felt denying funding to their students/schools was religious discrimination, but proponents of public education and separation of church and state were opposed. In addition, Protestant and Jewish groups argued the rise of Catholic power threatened American freedoms (Ravitch, 2010).
For a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, Mississippi continued to resist full integration of its public schools. Various forms of school choice emerged, including magnet schools and segregation academies. Finally, black parents in Biloxi, Jackson, and Leake County, supported by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, accomplished the first court-ordered school desegregation in the state in the fall of 1964.
The following year, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which allowed needy students in religious schools to receive federal aid for remedial services. This was not an act of conscience but a political move to please large numbers of Catholics who had been supporting Democrats in urban areas. ESEA also forced southern states to dismantle segregated public schools by threat of withholding federal aid. This was actually the opposite of Friedman’s vision of no interference from the government in educational matters, and at some point Friedman acknowledged that southern states were using his voucher and school choice ideas to evade compliance with Brown v. Board of Ed. He understood that was problematic, but never deviated from his vision of school choice as the answer to education in America (Ravitch, 2010).
School choice posed a problem in Mississippi after the passage of ESEA as most districts adopted “freedom of choice” policies to allow students to choose which school to attend. Most black Mississippians really did not have freedom of choice. Black parents who chose white schools for their children were subjected to numerous forms of intimidation: some were pressured or fired by their employers; some lost their housing; some lost their credit at the local bank; and others received threatening phone calls, had crosses burned on their lawns, or were victims of physical intimidation. Freedom of choice proved ineffective. In October 1969, in a landmark decision in Alexander v. Holmes, the Supreme Court ordered the immediate termination of dual school systems and the establishment of unitary ones.
Until 1980, school choice had been a topic kept outside the mainstream, national conversation because it was viewed as a way to avoid the integration of schools. However, with the election of Ronald Reagan, the school choice conversation resurfaced. Milton Friedman became one of Reagan’s advisors, even though his idea for vouchers for all students conflicted with Reagan’s idea of offering vouchers to low-performing students (Ravitch, 2010).
During Reagan’s two terms in office, the national teachers’ unions strongly opposed school choice, viewing it as a step toward privatization, and worked closely with the Democrat-controlled House. Beyond Reagan’s terms, free-market loving foundations (Heritage, Cato Institute, John M. Olin, Lynde and Harry Bradley) grew scholars and journalists who advocated for school choice. State and local “think tanks” sprung up all over the country, determined to reintroduce school choice.
In the next post, I will recount how the school choice movement gained traction in the 1990s, and charter legislation led to nearly 6,000 charter schools in the United States by 2013. Stay tuned!
Amanda Koonlaba is an elementary art teacher in Tupelo, MS. She is a contributor to MSEdBlog. Her views are her own and do not represent the views of any other entity.