Truth: Why vouchers and school choice were created

Donald Trump promised during his presidential campaign to spend $20 billion on school choice in his first 100 days. The rumor out of DC is that those funds will come from Title I —if he actually keeps this campaign promise. The fact that Betsy DeVos, a prominent supporter of vouchers for school run by corporations and churches, has been nominated as US Secretary of Education appears to suggest that he will.

Vouchers are being sold by Howard Fuller (who has come out in support of Betsy Devos) and other privatization proponents as civil rights.

However, what should be know is that vouchers were first created and used for two primary purposes— profit and to discriminate against children of color.

Milton Friedman, a white academic from the University of Chicago, invented the idea of school vouchers in the mid-1950s. He was very clear about his belief that corporations should profit from education and run schools— not the public. In 1997 he wrote “Public Schools: Make Them Private” He argued that vouchers were “a means to make a transition from a government to a market system,” to enable “a private, for-profit industry to develop that will provide a wide variety of learning opportunities and offer effective competition to public schools.” In addition to abolishing the public system of schools, he also believed that vouchers could be used to stack schools by race if folks so chose.


However, vouchers were not and are not being sold to the masses as a massive attempt to privatize or engineer schools, instead vouchers are politically framed as mostly “limited” approaches that would help poor children in cities (!?). Save our Schools New Jersey writes,

Pro-privatization foundations and think tanks market-tested the idea of vouchers as an intervention for high-poverty school districts and found that it was more palatable to voters than a broad-based voucher program that would be open to all children.  The nation’s first modern school voucher program was passed into law by the Wisconsin legislature in 1989, targeting students from low income households in the Milwaukee School District.  Despite poor academic results and an extremely high rate of turnover, voucher supporters were able to grow this pilot program significantly, once it was enacted, including a particularly large expansion in June 2013, under the leadership of Governor Scott Walker.

As of late-2012, targeted private school voucher programs were in place in the cities of Cleveland, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Racine; in the District of Columbia, Colorado’s Douglas County, as well as statewide in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah and Virginia.  Although vouchers have consistently failed academically, legislatures in Indiana, Louisiana and Wisconsin have expanded their initially targeted programs statewide.

Are vouchers really for low-income and children of color? In 2014, the NC NAACP filed an amicus brief challenging the constitutionality of North Carolina’s voucher program. After Brown v. Board of Education, Southern states decide that they would desegregate with All Deliberate Slowness. One of the ways that they implemented this approach was school vouchers. Vouchers were the confederacy’s response to Brown v. Board (See New Research: Vouchers— schools do the choosing). The NAACP brief was cited in a blog as saying,

This report and the Pearsall Plan were adopted by the General Assembly in 1956. Governor Luther Hudges told the legislators at the opening of the session that “the people of North Carolina expect their General Assembly and their Governor to do everything legally possible to prevent their children from being forced to attend mixed schools against their wishes.” Governor’s Address to the General Assembly, July 23, 1956, 10 Senate Journal.

Neither the Governor nor the all-white legislature disappointed those expectations. The quarter of the state represented by the NC NAACP was ignored. The State established a procedure for local referenda which would permit a school district that was ordered to desegregate to close all its public schools. The State would then provide vouchers to white students in those districts to attend private schools. The rationale behind the statutory change regarding the State Board of Education and non-public schools was out in the open. The ploy of state oversight helped legitimize the use of taxpayer dollars to fund white families’ abandonment of desegregated public schools and to subsidize racially segregated private schools (See Morgan, History of Private School Regulation in North Carolina, p.3). This is the direct and notorious ancestry of school vouchers in North Carolina, and the corrupt foundation upon which the current voucher legislation is built.

What’s shocking is that private school “segregation academies” were in created in states across the South at that time, and they still exist today! In fact, they are even very prominent in African American majority counties.

As the NAACP worked to desegregate North Carolina’s public schools from 1968 to 1972, private school enrollment nearly tripled in the state from approximately 18,000 to over 50,000. Increased enrollment in private schools, furthermore, was often concentrated in areas with high populations of African-American students.

The NAACP found the following:

  • Bertie County is 62% African American. Lawrence Academy was founded in Bertie County in 1968. Its student body is 98% white.
  • Halifax County is 53% African-American. Halifax Academy and Hobgood Academy were both founded in 1969. Halifax Academy is 98% white; Hobgood Academy is 95% white.
  • Hertford County is over 60% African-American, but Northeast Academy, established in 1966, is 99% white.
  • Vance County is 49% African-American; Kerr-Vance Academy, established in 1968, is 95% white.

Some of legacy “academies” in North Carolina are still clear about how you can attend their predominately white schools.

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 8.39.47 AM.png

This current screenshot shows that the Lawrence Academy is open for business, and you can use North Carolina’s voucher to attend their segregated school.

The NC NAACP concluded,

A diverse, well-funded public school system is the cornerstone of a successful state,” said Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, president of the NC NAACP. “The extremists’ attack on public education is a blatant attempt to further drain our schools of resources.  It will not help the great majority of black and other children of color, who will be further isolated and stranded in under-funded public schools.

“The brief points out that the extremists, which have pushed ‘vouchers’ for years, have admitted it tries to get a few minority children and parents as public relations images to disguise the racialist purposes and patterns behind their ploy,” Dr. Barber continued. “The Forward Together Moral Movement will not rest until North Carolina upholds its constitutional and moral responsibilities to ensure every child receives well-funded public education opportunities.

I think it’s also important to the note that the predominance of the peer reviewed research literature (There are always studies funded by neoliberal think tanks and produced by faculty at the University of Arkansas floating around promoting vouchers) demonstrates that vouchers actually have a negative impact on students. Diane Ravitch cites Christopher Lubienski, who is a professor of educational policy, organization, and leadership at the College of Education at the University of Illinois. He has written extensively about markets and schools. His most recent book is “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools.”

For years we’ve heard about how the most rigorous studies of voucher programs consistently show significant gains for students — especially urban minority students — and no evidence of harm.  While that claim was highly questionable, it was nonetheless a central talking point from voucher advocates intent on proving that vouchers boost academic achievement.  The idea that vouchers didn’t hurt, and probably helped, the students trapped in failing urban schools and most in need of options was used to justify calls for the expansion of vouchers from smaller, city-level policies to state-wide programs open to an increasing number of students.

Now, a slew of new studies and reviews — including some conducted by the same voucher advocates that had previously found vouchers “do no harm” — is telling quite a different story.  New reviews of existing voucher studies are pointing out that, overall, the impact on the test scores for students using vouchers are sporadic, inconsistent, and generally have “an effect on achievement that is statistically indistinguishable from zero.”

But some new studies on vouchers in Louisiana raise substantial concerns, finding that students using vouchers were significantly injured by using vouchers to attend private schools.

In conclusion, as a person who attended public and private (christian) schools growing up, if you would have asked me 15 years ago my opinion on vouchers, I probably would have written a blog post that was favorable to the approach. However, as I began to engage in the research over the past decade, I have become more critical of school vouchers, their origin, and the real intent of policymakers and other proponents (i.e. Betsy DeVos and Howard Fuller).

Chile is also important. To be honest, I had learned about the Chilean voucher system as a Stanford doctoral student in Martin Carnoy’s courses, but my real awakening happened when I sat on the dissertation of a Chilean graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. His research on the segregative impacts of vouchers in Chile over the past several decades really opened by eyes to what could happen in the United States if Betsy DeVos and Howard Fuller are successful in their crusade to privatize our education system. Considering the history and ongoing research about schools vouchers, we should be concerned about a system of education controlled by corporations and churches.

To read more about what happens in a system where every child has a voucher click here.

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  • There is a TON of writing out there on all of the many fallacies held dear by the privatizers, here are a few links that will be of use. as well as plus a balanced examination from the HBR.


  • So, I can assume then, that those who oppose charter schools based on statements made by the person who developed the idea will also join the fight against Planned Parenthood, given that its founder Margaret Sanger, founded the organization with the express goal of eradicating those undesirables — the poor black families — from our society and that she intentionally opened the first clinics in poor black neighborhoods in order to achieve her goal.

    If not, you are all frauds.


  • From the experience here in Chile, I can point out that in the more than 30 years of a commercialized, privatized education system that only increased segregation and social exclusion in the country, the results have been harmful. The voucher to the demand, a clearly contributed to the competition among the school agents, generating a process of serious social decomposition, is why, hopefully, other countries do NOT follow this path, which has been a failure.


  • When I see the statistics about the racial demographics of “segregation academies,” I wonder what the demographics look like with respect to parent education level. Sometimes more dramatic and shocking demographic issues can appear through such a lens, such as enrollment made up mostly of students having parents with college degrees. So that even non-white students attending such schools might actually have parents with college education, and perhaps there are very few enrolled whites coming from families who lack college education.

    One role of K-12 education is to promote social mobility among students — and one prominent expression of that is students from families with no college experience actually going to college to get a degree. One component of social mobility is social capital — gaining social advantage (including information and behavior norms as well as mentoring relationships) based on whom you know. When there is this kind of class segregation, with families having college education segregating together apart from families lacking college education, then I think long term social mobility is significantly reduced.

    I suspect that this might be the more impactful kind of segregation that is behind racial segregation. The way to test for it is to observe behaviors of college educated minority families — do they self-segregate based on parent education level? Do they experience racial prejudice in the same way as their non-college educated counterparts?


  • but my real awakening happened when I sat on the dissertation of a Chilean graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. His research on the segregative impacts of vouchers in Chile over the past several decades really opened by eyes to what could happen in the United States if Betsy DeVos and Howard Fuller are successful in their crusade to privatize our education system.

    Has this research been published anywhere?


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  • I also don’t understand why so many people who supported Trump don’t see that this goes against their self-interests. If you live in a rural area, how will shifting funds into voucher plans benefit your child? In Nevada, I can look at a database of private schools. We have 17 school districts. In nine of those districts, there are ZERO private schools. In four of the others, there are student enrollments of less that 200 students, and some of those are “court-ordered” – these aren’t private schools of choice, they’re detention centers. This would hold true for other states with vast rural areas, which is why Murkowski (Alaska) is saying she’s opposing DeVos.
    And this doesn’t even begin to touch the issue of students with disabilities …


  • Laaura H. Chapman

    Excellent summary. I appreciate the “schools do the choosing” reference.
    The cost of advertising for students and recruiting teachers is too rarely mentioned as feature of the charter industry. I became aware of that as Ilooked at some of the applications for USDE grants and reviews of these. A huge item for the chrter chains was cross-country travel and gear for branding such as uniforms and backpacks with logos.



    The oligarchs need to ‘Get ’em Young!’

    “Vouchers violate the American ideal of democracy because they transfer educational decisions from the public domain (through school boards and elections) to private management companies and organizations. This has already occurred in charter schools run by private charter management organizations that refuse public input into teaching and curriculum decisions. These organizations often prioritize profits over learning, using public tax dollars to hire inexperienced, teachers, and pocketing the difference. By permitting entirely private schools, vouchers would further decrease public accountability and create a wall between the public and the education sector, thereby diminishing democracy and the role of education as a public good;” writes Frank Adamson of Stanford University. He also says: “The best way to stop Trump’s plan to privatize public schools is to say no to vouchers, .”

    “It is critical to understand that the debate about education vouchers is nested within a larger battle over labor. Vouchers can disenfranchise teacher unions because they disperse teachers across many types of institutions and constrain their capacity to collectively bargain”


    “Trump and DeVos’s proposed voucher system promises to concurrently segregate students by class, ethnicity, and ability level while socially ostracizing individual students based on their ethnicities and identities. This system–driven by underlying agendas of marginalizing labor and generating private profit–will violate three core American principles: the separation of church and state, meritocracy, and democratic participation. In Chile, hundreds of thousands of people have marched in the streets to recapture public education after the vouchers decimated their system; U.S. citizens would do well to protest a national voucher policy before losing public education as a foundation of and for democracy.”

    Submitted on Thursday, Feb 2, 2017 at 5:39:10 PM


  • Why do we keep painting competition as a “good.” Competing is something you do with “others.” With your own kind, you collaborate. Would you ask your children how they did in school today, with the outcome that the one who did best gets dinner?


    • This is a very simplified response to a very complex question. Sorry about that. Because competition between organizations is based on selectively serving a market segment to increase market share and profitability. By definition, to compete effectively, you need to discriminate on who you serve. Public education serves everyone. The unprofitable and the profitable. Over and over again, privately run (corporate) charters that operate without transparency or accountability, and are separate from the public school district, are riddled with fraud and corruption. Billions of dollars of public money without any accountability on how it is spent and with not defined outcomes. The public and our children get screwed. As wonderful as it sounds (it being competition improves performance) it does not work in this setting. Two Noble economic prize winners this last year created algorithms on how and when public services perform via privatization vs. public ownership. It is never all is better. Free market is not the be all to end all except for the owners of the organizations. Reform also seems to be tied into teacher bashing, high stakes testing, and union busting. No high performing school system in the world does any of this and we have extensive research on what does work. It always comes down to leadership. We have fantastic school districts in our nation both in high privileged and under privileged areas. It comes down to leadership. We should be investing in developing leaders who create thriving educational communities rather than tearing down our public institution of education. My two cents worth. John


    • BTW I am agreeing with you. I like to expand on my thoughts. I did not make this clear. Just getting this competition thing off my chest.


  • Pingback: Julian Vasquez Heilig: The Origins of School Choice: Racial Segregation | Diane Ravitch's blog

  • Concerned citizen

    The only school choice being offered is a physical location.  As long as federal funding is taken, the same crappy curriculum aligned to the national standards, common core or otherwise rebranded, and digital assessments that data mine used to create psychological profiles of each student are in every choice available. 

    The Interagency Day Care Standards

    Federal law that states “Any agency, public or private, which receives federal funds directly or indirectly through a grant or contract… or by way of a voucher plan” must meet all program requirements (ed) that are set down for public schools. Acceptance of Federal funds is an agreement to abide by the requirements.”

    Sorry to bust the bubble folks but choice is just physical location.  That shiny gold school.the next town.over may have charter in the name but on the inside its the same just another government indoctrination center.

    DeVos, Trump, Obama, Ivanka  oddly enough pitch how great choice is yet they do not send their children to any of these choice schools.  Wonder why ?

    Low student to teacher ratios, no invalid standardized tests that take away from teaching, actual proven classical curriculum, pen to paper and no data mining and invasion of privacy.   Please let us know why do only those families that can afford five figure yearly tuition have this choice ?

    Real school choice is needed not the illusion.


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