If Teachers' Unions Truly Want Racial Integration, They Should Support School Choice

Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The, July 24, 2017 | Go to article overview

If Teachers' Unions Truly Want Racial Integration, They Should Support School Choice


As teachers know: facts matter. It's not clear, however, that they matter to American Federation for Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who recently called school choice programs "only slightly more polite cousins of segregation" and claimed that the "real pioneers of private school choice were the white politicians who resisted school integration."

Weingarten's funhouse-mirror perspective not only distorts the history of school choice, but also inverts the present reality of schooling. In fact, six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court issued Brown v. Board of Education, our district-based public school system is still highly segregated by race.

School choice didn't cause that; in fact, choice programs are improving racial integration and benefit disadvantaged minorities the most.

Contrary to Weingarten's telling, the idea for school vouchers dates back at least as far as 1791, when Thomas Paine argued in The Rights of Man that the government should provide public funds to low-income families to send their children to school. As education policy scholar Rick Hess noted recently, "Rather than promote universal education via publicly operated schools, Paine called for giving families the funds and then letting them make the arrangements they saw fit."

Likewise, in his 1859 book On Liberty, liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill argued in favor of giving parents public funds to educate their children rather than create a public school monopoly that would risk "establish[ing] a despotism over the mind."

In the modern era, the longest-running school voucher program was enacted in Wisconsin in 1990, sponsored by Rep. Annette Polly Williams, an African-American Democrat who wanted help lift underprivileged black children out of the failing district school system in which they were trapped. Explaining her support for vouchers, Williams said, "My fight is for our, for my, black children -- to be able to access this system and get the best that this system offers."

Weingarten ignores all this, choosing instead to locate the origin of school choice in the efforts of segregationists in Prince Edward County, Va., to use a voucher-like system to avoid racial integration in the wake of the Brown v. Board decision. Of course, if the efforts of a few segregationists to use school choice taints the movement decades later, then the much longer history of racially-segregated public schools--that were much more widespread and whose effects are still felt today--should be far more damning.

It is absurd to judge policies by the motivations of those who supported them decades ago. If that were the case, Weingarten should be campaigning against the minimum wage, which early 20th-century Progressives supported to keep blacks and immigrants out of the labor market.

Rather, policies should be judged by current effects. And by that standard, if racial integration is the goal, the district school system should be abolished. …

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