Confronting School Choice, Part II: The 1980s in Review

September 1980: Public School 207 in Brooklyn. Photo: Vic DeLucia/The New York Times.
September 1980: Public School 207 in Brooklyn. Photo: Vic DeLucia/The New York Times.

The issue that occasions this post is the NAACP’s recent call for a moratorium on charter schools until the charter school sector can meet basic standards of transparency, accountability, and inclusion. As I discussed previously, this resolution provoked expressions of shock, disappointment, and outrage on the part of many in the education reform community. Charter proponents’ characterization of this resolution as a break from the NAACP’s legacy of educational advocacy is at best ahistorical and at worst disingenuous. A glimpse at the NAACP’s stance on a different generation of school choice measures reveals that the organization has historically conceived of such reforms as detracting from rather than enhancing the ability of public school systems to educate all American children—especially poor and black children. This post revisits the NAACP’s 1980s opposition to federal financial support of private schools through tuition tax credits and school voucher programs.

During U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s administration, the NAACP opposed neoliberal education reform, or reform measures applying the idea that “society (and every institution within it) works best when it works according to the principles of the market” to schooling.1 In the early 1980s tuition tax credits and school vouchers were posited as a market-oriented solution giving families the economic option to choose private schooling for their children at public expense.

In October 1981, The Crisis Magazine contributor Dr. James P. Comer articulated what he termed “The New Threat to Black Education”: school choice plans in the forms of tuition tax credits and school vouchers. Comer acknowledged the attractiveness of such plans, particularly the promise that “such a program would shake up the public school bureaucracy and force it to be more responsive to the needs of students and parents.” However, he cautioned, the consequences of these school choice measures would be dire for black families, who, he reminded readers, are “disproportionately lower-income.”

“A tuition tax credit,” Comer explained, “would allow parents who send their children to private schools to deduct a certain percentage, possibly all, of tuition costs from their income taxes. The voucher approach would provide a certain amount of money from public funds to each student attending a private school. In the case of tax credits, this approach is of no benefit to parents who did not make enough money to pay taxes in the first place. In the case of a voucher system, where the tuition at a private school is more than the allotted amount of the voucher, parents would have to pay the difference. Poor parents would not be able to do so in the vast majority of cases.”

Aside from economic disadvantages disproportionately borne by black parents, Comer also pointed out that public funds supporting private schools would go to “segregation academies”: “The chief beneficiaries of a tax credit and voucher system program—aside from the middle-income city dwellers who have abandoned public schools—would be the thousands of private academies that have sprung up in the Deep South as a way of avoiding school integration.”

In language that could describe present-day attitudes towards public education, Comer wrote,

There is a rush to judgement being forced because the proponents of the tax credit and voucher plan sense that the political climate in the nation is rich and that the level of parental frustration and anger with the public schools is high enough to push through the necessary legislation. Some social scientists whose theories failed in the 1960s and ‘70s, now bankrupt in understanding and purpose relative to the education of the poor, support—with the same careless studies and experimental approaches used previously—the abandonment of public schools. The media, in search of excitement, often inadvertently help to convey the impression that public schools don’t and can’t work.

Rather than dispense with public schools, Comer argued that “to improve the schools the nation must address community development, employment and a variety of related issues…but in customary fashion with complex problems, and responding to other pressures, policymakers turn to simplistic solutions such as tax credits and voucher systems. In the process those hurting most and hurt most in the past—in this case, our black community—can get hurt again.”

In subsequent years, the issue of school choice constantly resurfaced. In summer 1983, the NAACP’s 74th Annual Convention adopted a resolution on “Education as a National Priority” that identified voucher proposals and tuition tax credits—alongside inadequate funding and loss of confidence in public education—as issues “threatening the very existence of public education.” The following year, NAACP Chairman Kelly M. Alexander, Sr. laid out what he called “The Unfinished Civil Rights Agenda,” articulating the organization’s stance that “education and employment must be linked. As emphasis is placed on math and science training” (following the Reagan administration’s April 1983 publication of “A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” which sounded the alarm of American academic mediocrity). He continued, “Every effort must be expanded in rejection of any and all efforts to erode the public school system of this nation by ill-conceived programs of tuition tax credits and education vouchers.”

Source: Wikimedia.

In summer 1984, at its 75th Annual Convention, the NAACP adopted a resolution on the Reagan administration’s proposed private school tuition tax credits and vouchers, holding that such measures would “create a dual school system where advantaged children attend private school” and that “disadvantaged children,” considered by private schools to be more difficult to educate, would be excluded. The resolution reads:

WHEREAS, the civil protections in the Administration’s proposal are inadequate and would not prevent all discriminatory private schools from being eligible; and,

WHEREAS, tuition tax credits would violate the constitutional separation of church and state; and,

WHEREAS, funding for public education has been drastically reduced;

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the NAACP is unalterably opposed to tuition tax credits in any form (including vouchers) and for any amount.

As the terrain of school choice measures has grown to include charter schools, the NAACP has acknowledged this new development with further resolutions (and further Crisis articles) detailing the threats that each and all of these reforms pose to public education for all American children. (Please don’t take my word for it; see this collection of Crisis issues for further documentation.)

This most recent resolution recapitulates the objections to school choice posed in the 1980s—as have many of the NAACP’s arguments against charter schools during the turn of the twenty-first century. As with tuition tax credits and school vouchers, “public funds are…diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.” Similarly, the organization holds, charters frequently expel rather than include “students that public schools have a duty to educate.” Further, the NAACP links charters (as it linked vouchers and tuition tax credits) to de facto segregation not only of black from white children, but “of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos in Bedminster, New Jersey, on November 19. Source: Andy Katz/AP, via Mother Jones.
President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos in Bedminster, New Jersey, on November 19. Source: Andy Katz/AP, via Mother Jones.

What are the stakes of the NAACP’s proposed moratorium on charter school expansion? On the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration as U.S. President, America in general and Black America in particular must brace itself for the impending wave of market-oriented education reform. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, billionaire Michigan native Betsy DeVos, is widely considered the office’s most anti-public-school nominee in history. Per Mother Jones,

Michigan serves as one of the most prominent examples of what aggressive DeVos-style school choice policies look like on the ground, especially when it comes to the expansion of charter schools. About 80 percent of state charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, a much higher share than anywhere else in the country, and with very little oversight from the state. And this year, the DeVoses were the biggest financial backers of the effort to oppose any new state oversight of charters.

Unregulated proliferation of privately-held and publicly-funded charter schools, contrary to the theory of neoliberalism, has not served Michigan better than its public schools have.

This is the important thing to remember that education reformers have conveniently failed to address in their outcry against the proposed moratorium: the NAACP’s goal is to advocate for standards in the charter sector, which is famously devoid of regulations. It is important for the NAACP to take this stand against opaque, unaccountable, inaccessible schools funded with public dollars, and this position is completely in keeping with its prior educational advocacy. Charter proponents, if they are serious about educating disadvantaged students of color, will rise to this challenge to both responsibly steward public funds and create schools that bolster a vibrant public education system.


Lindsey E. Jones is a PhD Candidate in History of Education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and a 2016-2018 Pre-doctoral Fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation project, “‘Not a Place of Punishment’: the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls, 1915-1940,” historicizes the education and incarceration of black girls by examining Virginia’s only reformatory for delinquent African American girls. Follow her on Twitter @noumenal_woman.

  1. Lester Spence, Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics (Brooklyn, New York: Punctum Books 2015), xxiv.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Comments on “Confronting School Choice, Part II: The 1980s in Review

  • Hear, Hear! Diane Ravitch’s latest essay (in keeping with much of her recent work) in the New York Review of Books reinforces the relevance of the points made here, indeed, complements it in several respects, as we see from a portion of her piece (Ravitch reminds us of how ostensibly liberal Democrats are equally to blame in this frightening attempt to essentially eviscerate a public school system dedicated in the first instance to democratic ideals, principles, and methods):

    [….] For the past fifteen years, the nation’s public schools have been a prime target for privatization. Unbeknownst to the public, those who would privatize the public schools call themselves “reformers” to disguise their goal. Who could be opposed to “reform”? These days, those who call themselves “education reformers” are likely to be hedge fund managers, entrepreneurs, and billionaires, not educators. The “reform” movement loudly proclaims the failure of American public education and seeks to turn public dollars over to entrepreneurs, corporate chains, mom-and-pop operations, religious organizations, and almost anyone else who wants to open a school.

    In early September, Donald Trump declared his commitment to privatization of the nation’s public schools. He held a press conference at a low-performing charter school in Cleveland run by a for-profit entrepreneur. He announced that if elected president, he would turn $20 billion in existing federal education expenditures into a block grant to states, which they could use for vouchers for religious schools, charter schools, private schools, or public schools. These are funds that currently subsidize public schools that enroll large numbers of poor students. Like most Republicans, Trump believes that “school choice” and competition produce better education, even though there is no evidence for this belief. As president, Trump will encourage competition among public and private providers of education, which will reduce funding for public schools. No high-performing nation in the world has privatized its schools.

    The motives for the privatization movement are various. Some privatizers have an ideological commitment to free-market capitalism; they decry public schools as “government schools,” hobbled by unions and bureaucracy. Some are certain that schools need to be run like businesses, and that people with business experience can manage schools far better than educators. Others have a profit motive, and they hope to make money in the burgeoning “education industry.” The adherents of the business approach oppose unions and tenure, preferring employees without any adequate job protection and merit pay tied to test scores. They never say, “We want to privatize public schools.” They say, “We want to save poor children from failing schools.” Therefore, “We must open privately managed charter schools to give children a choice,” and “We must provide vouchers so that poor families can escape the public schools.”

    The privatization movement has a powerful lobby to advance its cause. Most of those who support privatization are political conservatives. Right-wing think tanks regularly produce glowing accounts of charter schools and vouchers along with glowing reports about their success. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing organization funded by major corporations and composed of two thousand or so state legislators, drafts model charter school legislation, which its members introduce in their state legislatures. Every Republican governor and legislature has passed legislation for charters and vouchers. About half the states have enacted voucher legislation or tax credits for nonpublic schools, even though in some of those states, like Indiana and Nevada, the state constitution explicitly forbids spending state funds on religious schools or anything other than public schools.

    If the privatization movement were confined to Republicans, there might be a vigorous political debate about the wisdom of privatizing the nation’s public schools. But the Obama administration has been just as enthusiastic about privately managed charter schools as the Republicans. In 2009, its own education reform program, Race to the Top, offered a prize of $4.35 billion that states could compete for. In order to be eligible, states had to change their laws to allow or increase the number of charter schools, and they had to agree to close public schools that had persistently low test scores.

    In response to the prodding of the Obama administration, forty-two states and the District of Columbia currently permit charter schools. As thousands of neighborhood public schools were closed, charter schools opened to take their place. Today, there are about seven thousand publicly funded, privately managed charter schools, enrolling nearly three million students. Some are run for profit. Some are online schools, where students sit at home and get their lessons on a computer. Some operate in shopping malls. Some are run by fly-by-night characters hoping to make money. Charters open and close with disturbing frequency; from 2010 to 2015, more than 1,200 charters closed due to academic or financial difficulties, while others opened.

    Charters have several advantages over regular public schools: they can admit the students they want, exclude those they do not want, and push out the ones who do not meet their academic or behavioral standards. Even though some public schools have selective admissions, the public school system must enroll every student, at every point in the school year. Typically, charter schools have smaller numbers of students whose native language is not English and smaller numbers of students with serious disabilities as compared to neighborhood public schools. Both charters and vouchers drain away resources from the public schools, even as they leave the neediest, most expensive students to the public schools to educate. Competition from charters and vouchers does not improve public schools, which still enroll 94 percent of all students; it weakens them.

    Charter schools often call themselves “public charter schools,” but when they have been challenged in federal or state court or before the National Labor Relations Board, charter corporations insist that they are private contractors, not “state actors” like public schools, and therefore are not bound to follow state laws. As private corporations, they are exempt from state labor laws and from state laws that govern disciplinary policies. About 93 percent of charter schools are nonunion, as are virtually all voucher schools. In most charter schools, young teachers work fifty, sixty, or seventy hours a week. Teacher turnover is high, given the hours and intensity of the work.

    Over the past twenty years, under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, the federal government thas spent billions of dollars to increase the number of privately managed charter schools. Charter schools have been embraced by hedge fund managers; very wealthy financiers have created numerous organizations—such as Democrats for Education Reform, Education Reform Now, and Families for Excellent Schools—to supply many millions of dollars to support the expansion of charter schools. The elites who support charters also finance political campaigns for sympathetic candidates and for state referenda increasing charters. In the recent election, out-of-state donors, including the Waltons of Arkansas, spent $26 million in Massachusetts in hopes of expanding the number of charter schools; the ballot question was defeated by a resounding margin of 62–38 percent. In Georgia, the Republican governor sought a change in the state constitution to allow him to take over low-scoring public schools and convert them to charters; it too was defeated, by a vote of 60–40 percent.

    In addition to spending on political campaigns, some of the same billionaires have used their philanthropies to increase the number of charter schools. Three of the nation’s biggest foundations subsidize their growth: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation. In addition to these three, charters have also received donations from the Bloomberg Family Foundation, the Susan and Michael Dell Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (ex-Enron), the Fisher Family Foundation (The Gap stores), Reed Hastings (Netflix), Jonathan Sackler (Purdue Pharmaceutical, manufacturer of Oxycontin), the DeVos family of Michigan (Amway), and many more of the nation’s wealthiest citizens. Eli Broad is financing a program to put half the students in Los Angeles (the nation’s second-biggest school district) into privately managed charters.

    The Walton Family Foundation alone spends $200 million annually for charters, and claims credit for launching one of every four charter schools in the nation. The Walton family of Arkansas is worth about $130 billion, thanks to the Walmart stores, and they are vehemently antiunion. For them, charters are a convenient way to undermine teachers’ unions, one of the last and largest remaining pillars of the organized labor movement. Bill Gates has personally spent money to pass charter legislation in his home state of Washington. Three state referenda on charters failed in Washington, and the fourth passed by less than 1.5 percent of the vote in 2012. Gates’s goal was stymied, however, when the state’s highest court ruled that charter schools are not public schools because their boards are not elected. In the recent election, Gates and his allies supported opponents who ran against justices of the state Supreme Court who ruled against public funding of privately managed charter schools, but the voters reelected them.” [….] For the entire article, please see here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/12/08/when-public-goes-private-as-trump-wants-what-happens/

  • We enrolled our son in a “private, Christian” school that we have come to recognize as a Charter school in disguise. At first we couldn’t figure out why our five-year-old received a “scholarship” that ostensibly supported the tuition that is basically priced as advertised, and that we fully expected to pay; now, we understand that it’s a voucher. Our son’s age initially influenced our decision because he has a late birthday…and he’s tall and black. He needed to pass as an older student given the enhanced weight he carried as a tall, black kid. Our son remains at the school because his soul hasn’t been damaged and its familiarity satisfies the desire for stability that his maturity level seems to need (and that we can give him). Nevertheless, we find this school and other Charter schools incredibly problematic.

  • I agree with you (and, for that matter, with the NAACP) in theory–but my agreement must remain, for the time being, (with emphasis) in theory–rather than in practice. The problematic aspect of too firm an adherence to the theory is exhibited in places like Savannah, Georgia (my locale). I am a teacher at a charter school with a study body that is both majority African American and majority free/reduced lunch. We (the charter school) exist because of the (to put it lightly and politely) lack of quality public schools. What quality public schools there are (Savannah Arts Academy is a well-known example) set standards that most children from low-income homes are unable to meet. The requirement of an already-developed artistic skill and nearly perfect academic and behavioral records, for example, causes Savannah Arts’ demographics to inversely reflect that of the school district although Savannah Arts ostensibly recruits its study body district-wide. (2/3 of students at Savannah Arts are white and only 1/3 free/reduced lunch; compare this to 2/3 of the school district is African American and 2/3 free/reduced lunch.) There are also a number of high-performing private schools, almost all of them founded in the 1970s (read: white-flight schools formed in response to school integration in the ’60s). The district’s answer to the problem of low performance and high drop out rates is to artificially boost achievement by setting a rule that no student (even one who does no work) can receive less than a 60% in any given class, by counting those who enter alternative ed. programs (GEDs, for example) as if they were not drop-outs, etc. The shockingly low SAT scores (or, for that matter, shockingly low % of students who even take the SAT in the first place) remain, but I’m sure our superintendent will figure out a way to doctor those numbers when the time comes. In short: what is a parent to do? For that matter, what is an educator who really believes in equality of opportunity to do? Stand on principle and send our children to and/or work at underperforming, mismanaged schools? Or set up an alternative and do what charter schools were intended to do in the first place: provide an alternative model that may, if it proves successful, become replicable district-wide so that others can share in the success? I’ve chosen the latter option; it’s the only one that doesn’t seem to me to amount to giving a “yea” vote to the broken status quo.

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