The Shameful Origin of School Vouchers in the US, by Jim Baker

Vouchers are controversial elements of modern “reforms” to public education. They are supposed to give opportunities to poor people and make education fairer. They were fashionable first in the US and then spread to other nations. What is less known is that vouchers under other guises, were already an instrument to undermine public education in the late 1950’s. They were used as one way to avoid obeying the law of the land to preserve segregated schools.

Segregation and vouchers

The Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka[1] unanimous US Supreme Court decision, issued on May 17, 1954, contradicted a long-standing ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896. The earlier decision allowed racial segregation in public schools if the quality of education for different races was equal.

In the 1954 decision, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren (former Republican Governor of California named to the Court by President Eisenhower), the court decided that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” The court ruled that segregated schools are “inherently unequal.”

In a subsequent decision that grouped similar cases under “Brown vs. Board of Education”, the Supreme Court ordered lower courts to implement the earlier decision in other cases “with all deliberate speed”. The NAACP led the legal fight over a very long period even after the historic decision.

One of those cases was brought in the State of Virginia ruled by the “organization” of Democratic Senator Harry F. Byrd. Byrd was one of the leading defenders of segregation, white privilege, and accumulated wealth in the country. He was a leader of the “massive resistance” to the Court’s decision in Virginia and elsewhere. Among the tactics used by the “resistance” was shutting down schools that chose to re-open as integrated schools.

Radical Libertarian Ideologues

Another approach dreamed up by libertarian economists and lawyers led by James Buchanan[2]  to resist the Court’s decision in Virginia, was to shut down public schools even though public schools were mandated by the state’s Constitution. The logic was that, as the Supreme Court only spoke of public schools, the ruling would not apply to private schools. The idea was born, although not yet the education term. “vouchers”, of providing credits to parents so that they could send their children to private, all-white schools. This “experiment” ended in 1964, when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed Virginia's tuition grants to private education. It was at that time that Prince Edward County reopened its schools, on an integrated basis.

James Buchanan and others associated with him, were the “brains” behind many of the attempts to preserve segregated schools. They would develop a system of beliefs and strategies going beyond white superiority associated with protecting wealth from taxation and business from regulation and opposing popular forces that support democracy. Major targets included public education and government in general, trade unions, social security, and any collective forces that could limit the power of wealthy elites.

Koch Brothers

When Buchanan linked up with billionaire Charles Koch, in addition to obtaining secure and sustainable funding for university-based research operations (for example, George Mason University in Virginia), Koch also financed several “think-tanks”, including the Cato Institute.

However, beyond funding what is often doubtful research, the Koch-funded empire has developed extensive structures of operatives. It has far-reaching activities at the state level[3] that propose legislation and have a lot of influence. They played  for example, a major role in the attack of Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin on teachers and other public employees which he described as his plan to destroy union power in the State. Walker and his supporters are now moving to re-segregate schools in part of Wisconsin. And, of course, the Janus vs. AFSME decision[4] is like a dream in their sad little world; attacking teachers, public sector unions, public education, and the trade union movement in one blow.

Although not very well known by the public, the Koch machine is a major force in politics at both state and federal levels. Charles Koch’s brother, David, has recently retired from Koch Industries and his political role will fade, but the apparatus that the brothers have built is likely to remain strong.

School Vouchers – the Re-Birth of a Bad Idea

In recent decades, vouchers have become standard equipment of school “reform” in the United States and have spread to some other countries. As experience grows, it is clear that, in most cases, they do not contribute to quality education. They do, however, seem to boost segregation and inequality. In many states, schools have, in effect re-segregated. Even in California, far from the Deep South, vouchers have had a segregation effect.

The fact that the voucher idea spread outside of the ranks of the radical right, beyond those who, even in polite company, might have been called “nut cases”, is disturbing. A lesson from that experience is that policy making should be a serious process, based on real information, not on fancy and that it should fully implicate professional educators, who live and breathe education every day.

Another lesson might be to take an occasional look in the rear-view mirror. A system devised in the 1950’s to ensure that African-Americans stay in their places and to guarantee that those on top stay on top, is unlikely to be an instrument for the social progress of poor people and minorities. A quick, objective look at history can save time and help avoid a lot of foolish mistakes.



[2] The intellectual backbone of the libertarian stream of the radical right came largely, directly or indirectly, from his work. Much of the historical background contained in this piece comes from, “Democracy in Chains”.

[3] When the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was founded in 1973 as a non-profit, it grouped together conservative business representatives and state-level politicians. ALEC is almost entirely funded by corporate interests. At the beginning, it was unknown outside of the political world and is still somewhat shrouded in mystery. Their influence on legislation and regulation has grown steadily and its activities have become more public as their work has been revealed by organisations and reporters, including with respect to the Koch role in it.

[4] On 27 June 2018, the US Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, supported the claim of a non-union Illinois state employee that he should not be required to pay a fee in an amount inferior to union dues for union services that the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSME) were required to provide under law, including negotiating and implementing collective agreements and defending his rights in grievance procedures. The court decided that payment of any fees would violate Janus’ freedom of speech. The same principle will be applied by lower courts throughout the country and will force unions to provide representation for free or face costly lawsuits by nonunion workers for “failure to represent”. The decision  risks to considerably weaken workers and their trade unions. That is the real purpose of the ruling. It is not about protecting individual rights, but rather weakening the collective power of workers to defend their interests.


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Jim Baker

Jim Baker is Senior Consultant to Education International.

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