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Freedom of Choice in Education: the Origins of a Slogan

American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten is currently taking heat for her attempts to revive an old smear against school vouchers. In a recent interview, the teacher’s union boss claimed that pro-voucher slogans about “choice” were really coded dog whistles from the segregationist era.

Weingarten has a long history of falsely claiming that vouchers originated as part of the backlash against the 1954 desegregation ruling of Brown v. Board of Education. In reality, the concept of school choice traces back centuries prior. It can be found in the works of classical liberal philosophers Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, and John Stuart Mill, all of whom were also outspoken antislavery men. As a matter of education policy, the first voucher programs came to the United States in the late 19th century, when towns in rural New England set up a town-based tuitioning system that offered students a choice in public schooling.

Voucher opponents have nonetheless pushed the line that the idea grew out of the segregationist backlash to Brown v. Board in the 1950s south. In addition to its anachronism, this claim is at odds with historical evidence. In Virginia, which adopted a voucher-like tuition grant system in 1959, several segregationist hardliners mounted a campaign against the program. According to their openly racist arguments, vouchers would open the door to the “negro engulfment” of formerly all-white public schools by giving African-American students the ability to transfer schools. This practice undermined some of the main segregationist tactics for slowing the implementation of Brown: the use of enrollment caps, geographic zoning, and other barriers to impede the enrollment of black students.

Weingarten’s own union forebears had direct culpability in these racist actions. The Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, linked arms with segregationist attorney John S. Battle, Jr. to attack the tuition grants. In 1961, the union launched a lobbying campaign to restrict their use after a Richmond newspaper reported that many parents were using the grants to move their children out of segregated schools and into integrated institutions.

In this case, Weingarten’s latest argument carries the added twist of a new historical falsehood.

In January of 1959 that year, the Virginia assembly was thrown into chaos after a pair of court rulings struck down the segregationist “Massive Resistance” program of US Senator Harry Flood Byrd and his political machine. Seizing the opportunity to outflank Byrd, an unusual coalition of moderate segregationist “cushioners” and anti-segregationists, the latter mostly from the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C., crafted a race-neutral tuition grant program as part of a replacement for “Massive Resistance.” Supporters dubbed the tuition grant system a “freedom of choice” program, which is the basis of Weingarten’s claim about language and the coding thereof.

As we dig deeper into the evidence though, an added complication emerges. The tuition grant provision originated on a subcommittee of the specially-convened Perrow Commission on Education, which was tasked with a legislative response to the court rulings. On that subcommittee sat Sen. John A.K. Donovan, an anti-segregationist from Northern Virginia. During the Massive Resistance era, Donovan provided one of the only consistent votes against the Byrd machine. He made a name for himself after Brown v. Board by denouncing legislative harassment of the NAACP by the Byrd machine.

Senator Donovan was also a voucher supporter with close ties to the Catholic voucher advocacy group, Citizens for Educational Freedom (CEF). Records from the legislative proceedings indicate that Donovan was one of the main drafters of the tuition grant bill’s language

This historical detail matters, because in 1961 Donovan recounted these events in a letter to Father Virgil Blum, a priest at Marquette University who directed CEF’s national voucher advocacy efforts. Blum himself was an outspoken anti-segregationist, and encouraged his organization – with Donovan’s assistance – to file amicus briefs in the ongoing court battles against Prince Edward County, Virginia, a “Massive Resistance” holdout that shuttered its school system to prevent integration.

In their 1961 correspondence, Blum noted that he had made use of the “freedom of choice” slogan to advocate for vouchers. As Donovan quipped in return, “incidentally, I am to blame for Virginia’s school plan being titled ‘freedom of choice.’” He recounted that he used this phrase in a press statement as the bill was being unveiled. Thereafter, “the Governor and the press called it the ‘freedom of choice plan.’”

Blum responded to Donovan, stating “I am happy that you supplied the title ‘freedom of choice’ to the Virginia school plan. If this term should receive a general acceptance throughout the United States, it would serve to point up the fundamental issue of the civil rights of parents in the choice of a school for the education of their children.” Blum had a reason of his own to appreciate the slogan. Around the same time as the events in Virginia, he published a short book entitled Freedom of Choice in Education, laying out the philosophical case for school vouchers.

As these details reveal, the language of “choice” traces back to a voucher-supporting state senator and a voucher-supporting Catholic priest. Incidentally, that state senator provided a lonely voice against the very same segregationist “Massive Resistance” movement that Weingarten invokes to smear voucher advocates today. And the same Catholic priest denounced the segregationist alliances that Virginia’s teachers union embraced.

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