May 29, 2024

Steve Suitts: Separate and Unequal Schools: The Past Is Future

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Steve Suitts, writer and scholar, examines the history of separate and unequal schools, and how we are headed back toward that two-tiered system.

In recent times, private school vouchers were pitched to the public for the purpose of giving a targeted group of disadvantaged children new educational options, but legislatures are now expanding eligibility and funding for vouchers to include advantaged students. By adopting universal or near universal eligibility for ESAs, states will be obligating tens of billions of tax dollars to finance private schooling while creating a voucher system for use by affluent families with children already attending or planning to attend private school.

States are rushing to enact ESAs while they still have the last of huge federal COVID appropriations to distribute among public schools. This timing allows ESAs’ sponsors—Republican legislative leaders and governors—to entice once-reluctant, rural legislators to support vouchers. It also camouflages the severe fiscal impact this scheme will have on routinely underfunded public schools after the special federal funds run out.

The states adopting ESAs are also structuring this emerging, publicly funded, dual system so that private schools and homeschooling remain free of almost all regulations, academic standards, accountability, and oversight. These sorts of rules and regulations are always imposed by state legislatures on public schools and are understood as essential to protect students and to advance learning. Even as legislatures are adding restrictive laws on how local public schools teach topics involving race, sex, ethnicity, and gender they are providing new state funding for private schools and home-schooling that will enable racist, sexist, and other bigoted teaching.

If state legislatures succeed in establishing and broadening this dual, tax-funded system of schools, the tremors will transform the landscape of US elementary and secondary education for decades to come. Calling for “freedom of choice,” a battle cry first voiced by segregationists who fought to overturn the Brown decision, predominantly white Republicans will take states back to a future of separate and unequal education.

Suitts includes a great deal of data in the piece, and it brings him to a troubling conclusion.

During the last seventy years, the nation’s public schools have struggled in meeting the promise of Brown, despite clear proof that racially integrated, well-funded schools improve outcomes for Black children. This promise has been especially important to the South, where the states’ first education laws prohibited Black persons from being taught to read or write; where racially segregated schools offered children of color an inferior education across more than a half century. Due to stubborn, racially defined housing patterns, increasing class disparities, adverse, even hostile Supreme Court decisions, a lack of local, interracial community support, and, as recent research confirms, the growth of school choice, public schools continue to face far too many hurdles in providing all children with a good education.

The South’s new dual school system renounces and annuls the mandates and hopes of Brown v. Board of Education. As universal vouchers spread, Brown’s promise dies. By their design, vouchers are an abandonment of Brown’s goal of equality of educational opportunity.

Reestablishing a dual school system will damage the prospects of a good education for all who attend public schools—not just low-income and minority children. The southern states were not able to finance two separate school systems during the era of segregation, even though Black students received a pittance of funding. Today that inability remains. The South continues to be far behind the rest of the nation in state and local funding of public schools. The new schemes of universal Education Savings Account vouchers will exacerbate the lack of sufficient funds for all except those higher-income families whose school-age children can attend private schools or home-schools and enjoy the enhancements and enriching experience that vouchers will subsidize.

Parents, grandparents, and others who support public schools and the democratic promise of public education must raise our voices against this reactionary movement and in furtherance of the importance of public schools. Like democracy itself, public schools may be the worst system for delivering all children an equal opportunity for a good education—except for all the others. We must not betray or abandon public education if we are committed to the democratic goal of a more perfect union and a good society for all.

Read the full piece here at Southern Spaces.

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