The New Jim Crow: School Segregation via ESA Vouchers

The New Jim Crow: School Segregation via ESA Vouchers

Save Our Schools Arizona Network was proud to host “Speaking of Schools – The New Jim Crow: School Segregation via ESA Vouchers.” This powerful discussion covers public education’s key role in American society and outlines how the push for school vouchers is rooted in the decades-old push for “white-only” schools and is now exacerbating modern school segregation.

Bridge builder, organizer and strategist, Dountonia S. Batts, J.D., M.B.A  had a unique path to public education advocacy. “I was the poster child for vouchers in the state of Indiana.” After going through a divorce, she made the personal decision to raise her children with a “specific Biblical worldview,” and decided to send them to a private school that aligned with that worldview.

When vouchers became available to her, it seemed like a no-brainer to take the “reprieve in [her] budget.” But when Dountonia learned the truth about school vouchers defunding public education, “it opened my eyes to what my choice that I was already making was doing to the students in my community: taking away resources for something that I was already funding in the first place. I could no longer in good conscience continue to take vouchers.” When she attempted to pay the money back to the state, there was no mechanism for her to do so. She left the voucher program and eventually moved her children back to public schools where they received a “quality education” and received a “more well-rounded education” and less of a “limited world view” than what they were exposed to in private schools. She now serves on the Board of the Indiana Coalition of Public Education.

“Now I am everywhere, trying to let everyone know that public schools are worth fighting for – not only for the preservation of our democracy, but for a well-informed populace.”

Executive Director for Parents for Public Schools, Joann Mickens started school in 1957 and remembers going to a segregated community school for Black students in rural Virginia. She went to the same school her mom went to, three rooms each with three classes per room and no heating or cooling. She shared that “Public schools for me, as a rural Black kid in Virginia, opened up the world to me. I loved school, I loved education. And I don’t think, as American citizens, we should pay for education.”

After moving to Mississippi in the 1970s, Joann watched the formation of a two-tiered, segregated schooling system to get around post-Brown v. Board integration efforts. “I started school in the wake of Brown v. Board, and I live in Mississippi where the White Citizens’ Council established Council schools. And they established White Citizens’ Council schools because they didn’t want their white kids going to school with Black kids. It came down to race… the fact is, the Mississippi legislature created something called tuition grants. The tuition grant law allowed public dollars to go to fund White Citizen Council schools…. If you want your children going to those schools, fine. But I don’t believe my tax dollars — state, federal, city, whatever — should go to support that.”

State Enforced, Voluntary Segregation

“These tools of disunity, that have consistently been woven around our American history, are not new…. It’s that 1% wants to retain the power and control the people. And that’s what [public] education does: it undoes that, it puts us on a level playing field.”

Vouchers are framed as vehicles for “liberty” – but for who? As we have discussed time and time again, school vouchers do not offer the same opportunities to all students. Elite private academies cost double what a voucher provides, and even for families that can afford it, the school does not have to accept their child.

As discussed by Dr. Sharon Kirsch during the panel, before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling Prince Edward County Virginia had a well-resourced school for white students and an overcrowded, underfunded school for Black students. Rather than integrating the schools, the County chose to shutter its public school system altogether. The state passed one of the first tuition grant programs, and private white citizens opened up new schools that could exclude Black students: ‘segregation academies.’ Joann Mickens lived in a neighboring county when this occurred and recalls that “I was in elementary school, and we had kids from Prince Edward who came to [my school]. They just shut down the schools, and of course, gave money to white parents to support the schools where their children went.”

While the Prince Edward County voucher segregation scheme was eventually shut down by the federal government, the ideas and methods of resistance to integration spread throughout the South. By the 1970s, seven states had tuition grant programs in place that supported over 200 segregation academies. As Dr. Kirsch shared during the panel, “It’s not school choice, it’s the school’s choice.”

Joann witnessed this pattern of state-sponsored segregation throughout her life, but noted that “One difference today … the reasons are much more euphemistic. I don’t think the problem is with what goes on in our public schools, I think the problem is with who’s in them. I think it comes down, as most things in this country, it comes down to race and ethnicity…. [in the 1970s] it was much more in your face, and more blatant, as to the why, the problem. Now we talk about things like ‘values’ and ‘safety’ and all of that. We’re dressing it up, but basically what we’re saying is, ‘we don’t want our children going to school with them.’”

Dountonia shared: “You could almost take a page from the historical arguments, and just change the date, and it’s the exact same rhetoric… This is an old argument that has now gotten momentum because we have media now that is able to distribute messages at a much more rapid rate nowadays, and [voucher advocates] have the backing of billionaires, who have helped to move this process of school choice. That’s the point – it’s not new. This has been something that has been in progress ever since Brown v. Board passed. This effort to dismantle, or legally segregate, has been going on for a long time. I like to call it the ‘school choice’ movement because parents have always had choices. Now it’s just a matter of who pays for my choice. I like to call it voluntary segregation. We are choosing to segregate now, and the state is enforcing it. So, state-enforced voluntary segregation.”

Public Education is Foundational to Our Democratic System

In response to what she believed the role public education served in our democracy, Joann pointed out, “I think that we forget that we are a nation of immigrants. The only folks who are not immigrants, either forcibly or otherwise, are the Native Americans… And so when we start comparing the United States to Finland, or other countries that have much more homogeneous populations, it’s an unfair comparison. I believe that it is absolutely essential, that because of the nature of our population, we need to be intentional about bringing our population together. There needs to be a place where we’re interacting with people who represent the different aspects of America and think that public education is a part of that. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that we need to make an effort, if this experiment in democracy is going to survive, we’ve got to make an effort to see how we can come together, how we can have unity.”

Joann went on to share that “fundamental to a democratic system such as we have, where the government is OF and FOR and BY the people, we have to have people who are prepared to part in their government… It bothers me when people assume children cannot get a quality education in public schools. It is not true, it has never been true. And most of the people who are in positions of leadership in this country are public school graduates.”

As Dountonia explained, “Education is power. They say knowledge is power, but the application of knowledge is power. We are living in a time where we have access to a lot of information. Without the ability to think and process and synthesize that information in a way that is responsible and ethical.”

Dountonia noted that our uniform, universal public education system is one of the United State’s greatest inventions: “There are people from all over the world who want to come here to be educated. Why are we creating these barriers to equal, or quality, or successful education? When I think back to Brown v. Board, and the panic around integrated schools, I can’t help but to think that the image of public education that so many of our elected officials were the benefactors of, have promoted a message that they’ve been ‘tainted’ because Black and brown children now attend those institutions. What is the fear of the unified America we were promised in the whitewashed textbooks we all grew up on?” 

“It bothers me that there are people out there making it more difficult by using the language of equity to create inequitable outcomes…. So we don’t know our history so that we can’t repeat it.”

“The reasoning for integration, which people often miss, is not necessarily that African-Americans wanted to go to school with white students… They wanted access to the quality the white students were getting. And there’s a benefit, a residual benefit that came from that. We get to learn about one another. We get to be in this place together. The unity that Ms. Joann talked about… we learn from one another in that way, and it made us stronger.”

Vouchers Fuel Segregation & Discrimination

School vouchers, sold under the guise of “school choice” and passed as tax credits and “education savings accounts,” are spreading across the country despite evidence they do not improve academic achievement and oftentimes have detrimental impacts on student learning. Vouchers drain from already underfunded, underprivileged public schools to private schools, microschools, and home schools with little to no accountability or oversight. 

The claim that vouchers improve outcomes for black, brown, or low-income students has proven to be totally untrue. In Arizona, the majority of vouchers are going to the wealthiest families in the state who have always sent their kids to private academies on their own dime. Now, our state will spend almost $1 billion on vouchers that perpetuate inequities and worsen the learning gap for students who are already being left behind. 

Vouchers allow white families to opt into higher-cost private education while taking a coupon from the government to subsidize their choice – while low-income families are left in increasingly defunded public schools. This is the next evolution of an eighty-year battle against integrated schools, pushing for a return to segregation. It is our responsibility as good citizens of democracy to stand up and fight back, supporting a quality public education for everyone. 

When asked how we should move forward, Joann responded that “we have got this underbelly of folks in this country who are beating up on public schools, are denigrating them, are pulling them down. But there is a large majority that doesn’t feel that way; that doesn’t see it that way…. We need to make sure those voices are heard…. And we’ve got to elect leaders who support and believe in public education.”

Watch the full discussion here.

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