Choice’ and Other White Lies

We forget at our own peril that the voucher movement was, and remains, a movement that abandons public education rather than fights for the rights of all.

By Makani N. Themba

In 1966, at six years old, I was one of six Black children in a busing “experiment” to “integrate” an all-white elementary school in Queens, New York City. Far above the Mason-Dixon Line, my parents thought I would be safe from the savage anti-integration sentiment they saw in Little Rock, AK or Jackson, MI.

Boy, were they wrong.

Every day, the six of us would anxiously touch hands as we took the early morning ride from Hollis, in southern Queens, to the northern community of Little Neck. Hollis was a newly Black and middle-class community back then — made newly Black by the hurried panic of whites moving to places like Little Neck, where they thought they’d be “safe.”

Our coming made them feel unsafe. And we were not prepared for the their violence and hatred.

Teachers, students, and parents taunted us constantly. Students were given special dispensation not to hold our hands or in any way have contact. After a day of abuse in school, we would leave school as we entered — dodging rocks and epithets. The rocks never hit anyone. The epithets did. They hit and burrowed deep into our souls.

This is how the “choice” movement began — with the rock throwers and the naysayers. It was, and is, a movement rooted in fear. It was, and is, a movement that flees from public education rather than fights for public schools that serve all children, regardless of color or income.

It is no coincidence that this country’s first school voucher movement gave public dollars to white students in Virginia to attend private, segregated schools following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision legally banning racially separate and unequal education.

At the time, conservatives were in the forefront of opposing the Supreme Court decision. Today, conservatives are once again taking a strong interest in school vouchers — only this time in the guise of concern for Black folk.

Aided by millions in funding from conservative think tanks and public relations firms, today’s voucher movement has a much slicker image. And it is attracting diverse faces.

A high profile, big-ticket ad campaign is pushing the idea of school vouchers in the African-American community, although the campaign uses the more appealing term “choice.” The ads — and their backers — are part of the complex relationship of school reform to race.

The television and radio ads, sponsored by the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), are numerous, plaintive, and compelling. Black folk. Regular. Sincere. Speaking directly about their aspirations for their children’s education and lives.

Given prevailing stereotypes of Black apathy and neglect, the ads would be right on target if it weren’t for the group’s solution: school vouchers.

While the ads target the Black community, the white conservatives bankrolling and controlling the school voucher movement have a far broader agenda. Instead of providing the money needed to improve public schools, they want to use public tax dollars for vouchers for private schools. Since most voucher plans do not approach the cost of tuition at the best private schools, it’s clear that in the long run, vouchers are a way to help the (mostly white) well-to-do flee public schools. The overwhelming majority of students of color, meanwhile, will remain in even-more-poorly-funded public schools.

[Contributors to the BAEO include prominent conservative organizations such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation; see articles on pages 7 and 8.]

The difference between the “choice” movement and authentic school reform is the difference between abandonment and accountability. Vouchers enable parents to withdraw public education dollars and spend them at private schools. It is the ultimate breach in the social contract. Taxpayers are no longer a community unit committed to maintaining public education for all. They are individual consumers out for the best deal.

At the heart of the Brown vs. Board decision was its understanding of the relationship of race to resources and educational quality. Yet conservative groups downplay the importance of funding. A case in point: one BAEO press release touts research that it’s “choice” — not books, good teachers, and a rigorous curriculum — that advances Black education.

According to the BAEO, the only choice that matters is choosing a better school over a struggling school. But this sidesteps the underlying problem: that the bad schools are concentrated in Black and Brown communities. We need to fight to improve the entire system, not for a better place within it for select individuals.

This is not to deny that many schools are in trouble. But the answer lies in wholesale reform, not in a few of us taking the money and running.

But the conservatives are not interested in real reform because it costs too much money.

Clearly, money matters. Who gets it and for what purpose is at the heart of the education debate.

These are debates and decisions that have been fraught with racism, controversy, and even intrigue for centuries. School vouchers are no different.


Inequitable funding and the resulting low-quality schools stem from yet another broken promise of Reconstruction.

After the Civil War, Blacks fought for access to the nation’s “great equalizer,” public education, as part of the tremendous debt owed us. (The debt concerning education is a literal one. Under slavery, in a practice that continued with “indentured” children in post slavery years, it was common for Black children to be “loaned” out as apprentices in exchange for cash to support the private school tuition of their “owner’s” children. In other words, for at least three centuries white children of the gentry were educated as a direct result of wages provided by Black children who were deprived of education [see Neglected Stories: the Constitution and Family Values, Peggy Cooper Davis (Hill and Wang, 1997); or American Negro Slave Revolts, Herbert Aptheker (International Publishers, 1983)].

The right of Blacks to quality education was an important part of the struggle during Reconstruction. In fact, African Americans led the fight for free public schools for all, and working in alliance with whites brought such a victory to the South for the first time.

The 1954 Brown vs. Board decision came after almost a century of sustained organizing and agitation. Many thought that Brown would force an equitable division of resources and end the separate and unequal schooling that was the hallmark of U.S. education. But whites rebelled. When all else failed, they moved out of cities with any significant Black population, thereby accelerating the march toward sprawl and sub-urbanity. They even started their own private schools to avoid contact with Blacks.

This is the true beginning of the “choice” movement.

It’s a fascinating transition that “choice,” used to support segregation and white flight, is now allegedly designed to help Black children.

It’s not the first time that conservatives have changed their tune in order to advance their interests. Just a century ago, these same interests were working to ban private schooling and make public schools mandatory. They introduced state laws designed to outlaw Catholic schools (for the Irish), Hebrew schools, and German schools organized by the many immigrant families trying to hold on to their heritage on these shores. The Ku Klux Klan was a major advocate of these mandatory public school attendance laws. They were concerned that children in private schools would be taught “foreign values” that would pose a threat to the “American way of life.”


With the advent of school integration, it is now public schools that are the “threat.” Fear of attending school with people of color and concerns over issues such as sex education and multicultural curricula are driving ever-more white families to private schools or home schooling. It’s impossible to understand the voucher movement without looking at this broader context.

The conservatives pushing school vouchers are not committed to fighting for better schools for all. They are seeking to pull much-needed resources out of public schools and funnel the money into private schools. Fundamentally, they are looking for new ways for whites to maintain segregation and privilege. (Nationwide, 78 percent of private school students are white; 9 percent are African American and 8 percent are Latino.)

In order to keep white families in public schools following desegregation mandates, magnet schools and in-school academies became especially popular. Tracking has also been used to maintain separate and unequal schooling, even in nominally integrated schools. A recent study by the Applied Research Center “No Exit? Testing, Tracking, and Students of Color in U.S. Public Schools,” (, found that tracking is most common in schools with significant numbers of African American and/or Latino students. Further, white students — regardless of test scores, grades or behavior — are much more likely to be placed in “higher tracks” or academic programs.


Perhaps the best example of the conservative movement’s unabashed commitment to white privilege is found in its efforts at the post-secondary level.

As high-paying factory jobs of the industrial economy disappear, a college education is now critical to ensure a life without poverty. As a result, college admissions, especially at the graduate level, have become highly competitive.

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of lawsuits and policies at both the state and federal level designed to limit access to college (especially graduate school) for students of color, and to expand access for whites. Special outreach measures like affirmative action have been under growing attack. The clearest example is California, where a 1996 ballot measure curtailed the ability of colleges and universities to consider racial diversity as part of their hiring and admissions criteria.

At the same time, whites are suing for race-conscious admissions to gain unprecedented access to historically Black colleges and universities so that they have expanded options for college education. For example, Alabama State University is currently operating under a 1995 federal court ruling by District Judge Harold L. Murphy, requiring that it set aside nearly 40% of its academic grants budget for scholarships to whites. The state augments the university’s $229,000 contribution with public funds, bringing the “whites only” scholarship fund to $1 million a year. Until recently, a white student applying for such a scholarship needed only a “C” average. African Americans vying for admission to the university, meanwhile, had to earn almost a full point higher to even merit consideration. (According to recent press articles, the university has raised the grade point average required for white scholarships, partly in response to a current lawsuit by an African-American student.)

Aside from the irony of such a policy that cuts off African Americans from institutions established to help address the deep inequalities of slavery and its aftermath, there are no accompanying requirements for historically white colleges and universities. On the contrary, affirmative action efforts to integrate such historically white universities are under attack.


After centuries of fighting for equal education, more and more African Americans are understandably weary. For those who can afford to augment vouchers and get their kids into a great private school, vouchers might sound like a good idea. But for the rest of us, vouchers undermine the ability of African-American kids to get an education at all, because they further defund the public schools where the overwhelming majority of our kids will remain.

Vouchers also divert resources and responsibility from the public sector and move them all to the market. It’s all about getting the money, yet without any accountability.

In the days of the historic Brown case, many Black people put their lives on the line in the fight for quality public schools for all. This was the real choice movement. It wasn’t about slick ad campaigns. It was a movement that took place in the basements of churches and at the kitchen tables of mamas and grandmas who cared deeply for all their community’s children.

The new choice movement, with its clandestine commitment to advancing white privilege and its crass consumer approach to education, is a betrayal of this legacy.

Makani N. Themba is an author based in Columbia, Maryland whose latest book is Making Policy, Making Change (Chardon Press). This article is adapted from a piece that originally appeared in