OPINION: Trump’s jab at ‘government schools’ echoes rhetoric of segregation

Atlanta civil rights activist maintains roots of modern school choice movement lie in racism

Credit: Charles Pugh

Credit: Charles Pugh

In a new book, longtime civil rights advocate Steve Suitts traces the history of the modern school choice movement, a movement built, he says, on a segregationist foundation. Today, Suitts shares some of his research in a guest column.

An Atlanta resident and longtime education and civil rights advocate in the South, Suitts maintains in "Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement" that the strategies and rhetoric of school choice echo those used by segregationists to stop integration after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Suitts is an Atlanta resident and longtime education and civil rights advocate in the South. He was the founding director of the Alabama Civil Liberties Union and the executive producer and a writer of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," a Peabody-winning public radio series.

He served as the executive director of the Southern Regional Council for 18 years and as program coordinator, vice president, and senior fellow of the Southern Education Foundation for nearly 20 years. He was recently chief strategist for Better Schools Better Jobs, a Mississippi-based education advocacy program of the New Venture Fund.

By Steve Suitts

President Trump referred to public schools as “government schools” in his State of the Union address Tuesday night – becoming the first president to do so. He actually mentioned “failing government schools” in proposing a federal government program to finance private school vouchers.

The president’s position is nothing new. In his 2016 campaign, he pledged to become the "nation's biggest cheerleader for school choice" and to dismantle “our government-run education monopoly.” In his inaugural address, he called for federal funding of private schools and home schooling—a proposal he has included in each of his administration’s yearly budgets.

There is more than a touch of irony when a president calls the nation’s 98,000 public schools governed by more than 13,500 local school boards “government schools” as he proposes a single federal government program to finance private schools.

But more instructive is an understanding of how the term "government schools" has emerged over the decades as an attempt to discredit the notion of public schools as institutions striving to be governed by democratic principles. Libertarian economist Milton Friedman is often credited with introducing the term "government schools" into the vocabulary of the school choice movement when he wrote an essay entitled, "The Role of Government in Education" in 1955.

Friedman argued that “competitive private enterprise is likely to be far more efficient in meeting consumer demands” in education than “government schools.” He acknowledged that vouchers would create a system where there could be “exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools. Parents can choose which to send their children to.”

A true believer in allowing the marketplace to govern all matter of policy and practice, Friedman also opposed later the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 since its bar against racial discrimination interfered with private choice.

In fact, Friedman was not the first to publish such a proposal. A year earlier, in response to the Supreme Court's opinion in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing racial segregation, Mississippi segregationist Tom P. Brady gave a speech (later expanded as a book) that became an informal manifesto for southern segregationist leaders.

In "Black Monday," which became the segregationists' guidebook for thwarting integration, Brady wrote:

The public school is a socialized or politically monopolized institution, and suffers from weakness inherent in all monopolies… Nothing will do more to better education in America than the breaking of the public school trust… And this can be done by the remission to parents of the taxes they are compelled to pay to support politically-controlled schools, in an amount comparable to what they pay for private schooling.

Also, in an attempt to overturn the Brown decision, Alabama’s “freedom of choice” plan—the first segregation strategy report, published a year before Friedman’s essay—was built on the same of notion of vouchers so that if “members of a race are thereby deprived of access to a school attended by the other race, the result is attributable not to compulsion by the state but to the inconsistent choices of free citizens.”

Within four years of the publication of Friedman’s essay, a large number of Southern segregationists were advancing the theory of individual freedom as the leading rationale for vouchers and school choice. As one Southern publicist wrote, “the Southern white case is not compulsory segregation; it also is individual liberty.”

Southern segregationists also adopted Friedman's use of the term "government schools." In 1964, for example, Mississippi White Citizens' Council leader William Simmons condemned the monopoly of "government schools." In the segregationist Council's newsletter, Simmons wrote that that public schools "can no longer be considered public—they have become government school systems." Afterwards, the Mississippi Citizens' Council worked to develop a private school system of choice, as their leaders condemned government schools as "socialism in its purest form."

It is highly doubtful that President Trump knows anything of this history. In recent decades the term has been resurrected by conservative radio and media personalities like Sean Hannity who have condemned "government schools.” And today it is a common expression among advocates of government-financing of school choice.

What the nation should know is that the term “government school” has been and remains in this country a rhetorical attack on the bedrock principle that government-financed schools in the United States should be governed by democratic principles such as non-discrimination and equal protection.

It was the core of the Brown decision, and it is under attack today as it was in the era of massive resistance to school desegregation. Yes, a Nobel Prize-winning libertarian economist, many Southern segregationists, and even, now, a president have been willing gladly to abandon those principles, but the American people should not.