US Supreme Court Ordered Desegregation, then Conservatives Worked to Demolish Public Education
In part two, author and historian Nancy MacLean discusses how Virginia pioneered voucher schools to thwart the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling
JAISAL NOOR: Welcome back to the Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor, bringing you Part 2 of our discussion with the award-winning author Nancy McLean about her book “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.”
So 64 years ago, Brown vs. Board of Education found that separate and unequal education systems for African Americans was unconstitutional. You argue that many Virginians initially actually accepted this decision, but a public campaign was launched to sway public opinion against it. Can you talk about that? You start off the first chapter of your book with this history, talking about how students and teachers in Virginia, led by students, weren’t organized to be part of Brown. And then the public response against it.
NANCY MACLEAN: Yeah, in the state of Virginia in 1951 there was an extraordinarily inspiring event that is really, in a way, a precursor to some of what we’re seeing now with the teachers strikes, and student and teacher mobilizations for good public education. In that strike in 1951 in Prince Edward County, Virginia, a young woman named Barbara Rose Johns joined with her favorite teacher, and the two of them worked together, kind of strategized for a strike, a student strike, to demand a better high school for the black children of Prince Edward County. At that point many of the students were taking classes in tar paper shacks. They did not have indoor plumbing, in many cases, while the white school was the extraordinary state of the art facility. And so the 200 students in this high school went out on a 100 percent solid students strike for a better high school.
It was an incredibly inspiring event with the support of over 90 percent of their parents, the local black clergy, and NAACP. And what they wanted was a chance to learn, to grow, to have the same opportunities as other children in their cohort and their era and their community. And they only went back to school when the NAACP agreed to take their course. I’m sorry, to take their case against discrimination to the courts. And at that point the students went back to school, and this case from Prince Edward County became one of the five eventually folded into Brown vs. Board of Education.
Fast forward a bit, and after the Brown decision was issued by the court, Virginia’s extremely conservative white elite began in 1955 and ’56 to do everything it could to undermine the success of that decision, and to deny black children and communities the constitutional rights that had just been recognized by the court. The way that they did this was through a program called massive resistance, and they led the program of massive resistance and goaded the wider white South onto it. And one element of that massive resistance was state-funded tuition grants, what we today would call vouchers, to enable white parents to pull their children from public schools to private schools that would be beyond the reach of the Federal Court’s ruling that segregation was unconstitutional.
So that’s actually how I got into this story, and it was a story that led me to the surprising discovery that essentially the entire American right, and particularly of interest, this free market fundamentalist right that was just beginning to get organized in those years, supported these tax-funded school vouchers. And even, in many cases, supported the school closures in Prince Edward County to prevent the Brown decision from being implemented.
So that was fascinating to me. And I discovered that Milton Friedman, the Chicago school free market economist, had issued his first manifesto for such vouchers in 1955 in the full knowledge of how it could be used by the white segregationists of the South. And then I also stumbled onto a report by this James McGill Buchanan that we were discussing earlier, who essentially tried to pull the segregationist chestnuts out of the fire in early 1959, when a massive mobilization of moderate white parents had come together to try to save the schools from these school closures, and the bleeding of these tax monies out to private schools. And after the courts had ruled against school closures of schools that were planning to desegregate in Virginia. So that’s how Buchanan got on my radar. But what I realized was that this was a much deeper story about the right’s radical antipathy to public education precisely because it was public.
And here I think it’s important to point out that when this was happening in the late 1950s, American schools were the envy of the developed world. We lead the world in the efficacy of our public education system. Our schools were a model for the wider world. And yet this right was attacking public education even then. And as important, teachers were not organized then. There were no recognized teachers unions. There was no collective bargaining structure for teachers in those years. The right was attacking public education as a monopoly, saying that it denied choice, all the kinds of things that they say now against public education, and they were doing this at a time when teachers had no collective power.
So the antipathy that we see on the right toward teachers unions today, toward public education, is not really because of any failing on their part. It is ideological. It is dogmatic. It is an antipathy to public education precisely because it is public.
JAISAL NOOR: Now, we just have a few minutes left, but there’s a few things I want to go through quickly with you. So, Buchanan didn’t bring up race in his arguments. And it’s sort of a similar way that the privatization movement today, you know, they say privatization is going to help students of color, it’s going to help low-income students by increasing choice. What’s your, what’s your response when you hear that today? And you say, as someone who is aware and has researched the history of this movement, what are your, how do you respond to that?
NANCY MACLEAN: Yeah. I mean, I’m sure there are some sincere people who make these arguments. And yet for the architects of the right I find it deeply disingenuous. We would not face the crisis that we face today, we would not have teachers out on strike in states where they have no collective bargaining rights, by the way, if we had not had this right organizing against public education for decades, now, trying to starve it of resources, trying to hold it to testing standards that they know will undermine the quality of education and lead people to flee the public schools.
And you know, one measure of the lack of good faith, I think, in these arguments is the fact that while they’re holding public education to, that has been deprived of resources, to these high testing standards and so forth, they are actually giving out in my state of North Carolina, for example, publicly tax-funded vouchers to private schools that, as one shocked judge found, are under no legal obligation whatsoever to teach students anything. And in fact, one private school system in North Carolina, a Stanford study found, had taught students nothing in mathematics for 180 days, and very little in English.
So what we’re seeing, basically, is a kind of ransacking of a precious public resource that has been built up over generations. Nationally, from the early 19th century, our public education system was developed with tremendous investment by taxpayers, and citizens, and teachers, and former students, and so forth. And now in North Carolina what we’re seeing is this terrible, terrible sad irony that a state that was once one of the poorest in the region, that dragged itself up by investing in good public education, by investing in public infrastructure, is now being dragged into competition with Mississippi and Alabama and other Southern states that have starved their schools for years by a Republican Party that has been turned into a delivery vehicle by the Koch donor network.
JAISAL NOOR: And if you look at these laws passed around the country, they have, you know, the Koch brothers, ALEC, you know, these are all funded by these groups. You know, these groups put out, secret memos released by the Guardian responding to these teachers, and you know, giving lawmakers ways to respond to them. And their, their stated goal in these leaked documents is to destroy-. To take on unions, especially teachers unions, for their opposition to these laws.
Unfortunately we’re out of time, but we’ll, we’ll definitely have you on again. Nancy MacLean, author of “Democracy in Chains,” professor at Duke University. “Democracy in Chains” was a finalist for the National Book Prize in 2017. It’ll be out in paperback on June 5. Thank you so much for joining us, and we’ll definitely have you on again soon.
NANCY MACLEAN: Thank you, Jaisal.
JAISAL NOOR: And thank you for watching us at the Real News Network.