A voucher smear lacking evidence

The 1990 launch of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program marked the dawn of the modern school voucher movement.

It was the product of an unlikely collaboration. Conservative acolytes of free-market economist Milton Friedman in the administration of Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson aligned with progressive black Democrats like the late state Rep. Polly Williams*.

The motivations of the two camps make sense. Conservative reformers drew upon ideas Friedman had promoted for decades. Williams wanted new options for disadvantaged Milwaukee children she represented.

And yet, opponents of today’s private school choice programs continue to assert the ideas shaping today’s voucher programs have other, far more sinister, origins — specifically, short-lived, shameful attempts by Southern whites to create private “segregation academies,” with tuition funded from public coffers.

The Center for American Progress is out today with a report titled “The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers.” 

The report is timed to coincide with an event the think tank’s “Action Fund” is hosting alongside the American Federation of Teachers. It makes no serious attempt to connect the segregation academies of the 1960s and early ’70s to the Milwaukee voucher program and its present-day cousins across the country. For the most part, it just insinuates what the title boldly asserts.

In short, it continues an ongoing tradition of using segregation academies to smear modern-day vouchers without documenting any actual connection between the two.

The unfounded connection elides decades of history and mountains of facts. The U.S. Supreme Court definitively outlawed racial discrimination by private schools in 1976. And in fact, there is some evidence that today’s private school choice programs — especially those that target disadvantaged students — help reduce racial segregation in public schools.

Still, that evidence isn’t as definitive as voucher advocates sometimes assert. It would be helpful to have a serious debate about why public and private schools remain segregated, and how to correct the power imbalances that allow segregation to persist.

Instead, we’re still batting around unsupported smears against school choice.

*It’s certainly true that, in later years, the alliance began to fray, as Williams and her allies grew concerned that the voucher program was growing to serve less economically disadvantaged children.