In Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement, Steve Suitts provides much needed context for the current debate raging over “school choice,” charter schools, school vouchers, and other forms of privately operated schools that compete for public money. At 128 pages, the book is a fairly quick read but full of important content, through documentation and an impressive number of photos.
Suits, a founding director of the Alabama Civil Liberties Union, makes an impressive and convincing case that the phrase “school choice”—a term influenced by libertarian economist Milton Friedman—is the latest foray in the long effort to resegregate public schools.
Segregationists began to talk in terms of “school choice,” rather than saying they wanted to keep black children out of their white schools.
Overturning Brown begins with the origin of school vouchers in the Southern states, which emerged as an attempt to keep schools segregated after the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that schools were to be desegregated in Brown v. Board of Education. After a decade-long battle, it was declared by the Supreme Court that the doctrine of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional.
We are now hearing the term “school choice” again.
Mitt Romney, while on the presidential campaign trail in 2012, touted a proposal to overhaul public schools by providing vouchers to low-income students—even though he knew most students in that category would receive a limited stipend, and it would be difficult for the targeted group to afford the remaining fee.
During Trump’s presidential campaign, he promised he would be the “nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice.” And that’s a promise he has kept, specifically by naming Betsy DeVos—who is a proponent of vouchers, tax credits, and the “529 Savings Plan,” which are alternative methods of diverting dollars into exclusionary private schools—as the Secretary of Education.
Today, “school choice” is a dog whistle for school segregation couched cynically in the language of civil rights. As Suitts points out, Trump deployed the phrase in a speech to Congress saying, “Education is the civil rights issue of our time.” This phrasing has echoed from as far back as the 1950s and was even used by President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, when advocating for charter schools. It was deemed his Rosa Parks moment.
When Milton Friedman coined the term “freedom of choice,” he chose to think of public schools as part of the free market and every parent as a consumer with the power to choose the best product.
The segregationists picked up this idea and made it their own, after losing one court battle after another. They began to talk in terms of “school choice,” rather than saying they wanted to keep black children out of their white schools. Now, you hear the term when advocates want to boost the idea of charter schools as a matter of choice. Unfortunately, charter schools are worsening racial segregation of schools, with segregation itself being an unspoken goal of many charters.
Critically, Suitts reminds us of our history of school segregation and the struggle to desegregate public schools. Some of the most infamous segregationists such as George Wallace, Jesse Helms, and Strom Thurmond were ready to abandon public schools and close them rather than desegregate.
Suitts also highlights the brave leaders who led the battle against segregation—including Thurgood Marshall and Medgar Evers, who was murdered in his own driveway in Jackson, Mississippi—and the first black students to cross the line and desegregate schools throughout the South. Many were teachers fired from work, others—black and white—were harassed, threatened, thrown out or bombed out of their homes, beaten, shot, or killed.
As Suitts states:
By failing to grasp the history of the struggles and tactics against Southern school desegregation, the nation has come to recognize segregation and racial superiority only in those private schools that are absolutely all-white. The looming danger lies in legitimizing and advancing a system of segregation and exclusion in education that is not called by its name.
Overturning Brown is required reading for anyone interested in the current education debate and the history of public education in the United States. It is not only a refresher for my generation, but a reference for younger activists fighting for equality in schools today.