School Vouchers, James Buchanan, and Segregation

A Good Case can be Made That He Was

Line drawing of an old-fashioned school house

With our new Education Secretary, Betsy Devos the idea of moving away from public schools via vouchers for private schools is once again in the news. Many feel there are insufficient safeguards against discrimination in many voucher programs. An important bit of history is that the notion of privatizing school has its roots in the battle to preserve racial segregation in the era of “massive resistance.” When the Center for American Progress (CAP) pointed this out, the libertarian Cato Institute issued a rather weak response.  Libertarians, I think, like to ignore the rather sad history of their movement’s commitment to racial justice.

The CAP report focuses on Prince Edward County, Virginia. This story is related to  James M. Buchanan, the subject of Nancy Maclean’s Democracy in Chains.  The libertarian right have attacked this book fiercely . Here is what I find notable about many of the criticisms of her book. They pounce on certain words (she says “lodestar!”),  her interpretations of some of the quotations she cites, minor incidents of Buchanan’s career, or some minutia of Buchanan’s “public choice theory.”  Rhetorician Kenneth Burke nailed this strategy in the 1950s in his essay, “On the Art of Debunking:

It would seem they are no longer seeking good arguments; rather they are seeking any arguments, if only there be enough of them to keep running through the headlines, an avalanche of arguments, condemnations, prophecies of dire calamity, “statistical proofs,” pronouncements by private and institutional “authorities,” a barrage, a snowing under, a purely quantitative mode of propaganda, Are there no eagles among their utterances? Very well, let them be instead a swarm of mosquitoes. Before you could refute this morning’s, there is a new batch out this afternoon.

With that in mind, I will offer an interpretation of James Buchanan that does beyond the claim that MacLean develops: I think we can justifiably use the word “segregationist” to describe James Buchanan between the years 1955, when he founded the Jefferson Center, and 1964s, when the Civil Rights Act passed.

Before I launch into making my case, I need to issue a few caveats. First, in an earlier post I argued that whether or not Buchanan was “really” a racist is irrelevant to MacLean’s book. Here, I want to caution you that because I think Buchanan was a segregationist, that does not mean I think he was a racist. MacLean explicitly states that we can disentangle race from a support of segregation.  She writes:

“It is true that many observers at the time, and scholars since, have reduced the conflict to one of racial attitudes alone, disposing too easily of the political-economic fears and philosophical commitments that stiffened many whites’ will to fight. So a ‘both/and construction would be reasonable.”

So, it may very well be that Buchanan’s concerns about federal overreach were the reason’s he supported segregation. But the fact that he was not an overt racist does not mean he was not a segregationist.

Second, I am not arguing that Buchnan threw himself into the segregation issue with the same fervor as the True Believers such as James Jackson Kilpatrick or Carleton Putnam. When he wrote about Virginia’s segregation problem in schools, however, it was firmly on the side of the segregationists. He offered arguments that were used to support segregation and it is unreasonable to think that he was unaware that his arguments did support segregation. There is no evidence that he objected to his arguments being used to support segregation.

After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Virginia declared it would massively resist school segregation. By 1958, many aspects of the massive resistance legislation was battered and unable to withstand court challenges.  Jill Ogline Titus sets the stage:

White citizens responded in a variety of ways to the enforcement of the legislation that many had supported so heartily in 1956. Committed segregationists devoted themselves to replacing public education with a comprehensive system of private schools.

In early 1959 G. Warren Nutter and Buchanan sent their report recommending the privatazation of public schools to the Virginia commission in charge of such issues. This was a month after the Federal Courts struck down Virginia’s Massive Resistance laws. Obviously, they meant to intervene in the segregation issue. We don’t have to rely only on the timing of their report however, because in April, just before the government would make a decision they published two articles in the Richmond Times-Dispatch  and the opening paragraph of the first one, published 12 April 1959, they announce that is exactly their intention;

Although constitutional, social, and political factors may prove to be of overriding importance in resolving the current school crisis, an understanding of the economics of universal education is essential for informed discussion and intelligent action on the educational issues now facing the state of Virginia.

The only “crisis” in Virginia’s schools was segregation, and clearly Nutter and Buchanan thought their expertise could help the Commonwealth (not “State!”) of Virginia.

In their article, they claimed to be limited to only reporting on the facts of universal education. As far as ethics are concerned, their opinion is just that of a citizen, no better than anyone else’s. Their ethical declarations “have nothing to do, one way or the other, with the economic questions on which we are about to comment.”  Still, it is illuminating to examine their ethical views because that informs us of what they thought the “current school crisis” actually was. There were two. First:

We believe every individual should be free to associate with persons of his own choosing. We therefore disapprove of both involuntary (or coercive) segregation and involuntary integration.

Well, there you go! See? Nutter and Buchanan aren’t segregationists! They tell you that right there! They, like all libertarians claim, are against coercion, which segregation obviously was and they say so!  This was a standard line among libertarians and conservatives of the time. In 1956, Frank Chodorov praised Virginia’s idea of privatizing education:

The effect of this proposal- and that is the implied intent- will be that white parents will have the choice of sending their children to schools which do or do not enroll Negroes, and Negro parents will have the choice of public schools, integrated, or schools for Negroes only.

This was also the position of sociologist Ernest van den Haag, a writer for the National Review, who made the claim in a 1956 book (which I discussed here).

The desire for the maximization of liberty leads to the contention that there should be schools for whites, schools for Negroes, and schools which both can attend, just as there are colleges for males, females, and  coeducational ones. . . . Neither the legal enforcement of segregation nor compulsory congregation—the outlawing of segregation—are consistent with freedom.

van den Haag’s own commitment to this principle was doubtful. Within a few years, van den Haag would be testifying in favor of segregation in Georgia and Mississippi, and in favor of apartheid at the World Court. Nutter and Buchanan, of course, never supported segregation in a similar manner.

Working out the implications of the maximization of freedom would require, at a minimum, three different school systems: white, black, and integrated. Of course, that is a minimum since perhaps there should be six: white girls, black girls, integrated girls, black boys, white boys, integrated boys. Or perhaps even more: since those of Irish heritage might want their own schools, etc. But, let’s not go down that rabbit hole (which libertarians did all too often when speaking out against the FEPC).

The important point about Nutter and Buchanan’s first ethical stance is that they thought it was perfectly fine for government money, in this case in the form of vouchers or other subsidies, to be spent on segregated education as long the option was open for it to be spent on integrated education as well.

The problem with this position is made clear by  their second ethical declaration:

At the same time, we are deeply concerned over the serious constitutional questions raised by recent policies of the federal branches.

What serious constitutional questions are they discussing? Who thinks they are serious constitutional questions? The segregationists did. Whether they were concerned about “race mixing” that could arise from integrated schooling or because they thought the Supreme Court had overreached their authority, it was the segregationists who believed there were “serious constitutional questions” at stake. To underscore the point, let me mention an ethical concern which goes completely unmentioned by Nutter and Buchanan:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

This is the text of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the school crisis in Virginia, this was the reason the Federal government was intervening into the issue at all. But, Nutter and Buchanan do not mention this as one of their ethical concerns. Their concern, like that of the segregationists was that the Federal government was simply too diligent in trying to guarantee the “equal protection of the laws” to their citizens.

Nutter and Buchanan argued that universal educationt was obviously necessary for democratic governance.  For them, there were “Three essential governmental responsibilities in a system of universal education:”

  1. Compelling attendance so that education is universal.
  2. Fixing minimum educational standards.
  3. Financing costs of education.

The mistake that people make, they claimed, was in thinking these governmental obligations must be met by the government administering education as well as financing it, when “privately operated schools are fully compatible with universal education.”  They posited several forms such private schools could take, in some cases operating along side public schools and in others completely displacing them. Regardless, the magic of the market would guarantee that the schools would be terrific: ““Competition would tend to regulate efficiency everywhere, for state schools would have to meet the challenges of private schools, and the latter would have to meet the challenge of each other.” As a result of this competition, a thousand educational flowers would bloom:

There would be a diversity of educational programs within as well as among communities….  For one thing, there would be differing emphasis: some schools would stress classical education, others vocational, still others academic preparation, and so on.  Every parent would cast his vote in the marketplace and have it count, to the extent that it did not conflict with the minimum set by the government.

The promised diversity is notable by the complete absence of any mention of racial segregation, the “current school crisis” that was their purported topic. The legislature was not having emergency hearings about the lack of “classical education” or “academic preparation” they were concerned about racial segregation and  Nutter and Buchanan offered these “facts” in support of that issue. They wrote, “This diversity [that would result from private schools] would undoubtedly take many forms, and it is literally impossible to predict all of them” it would depend on market. Left unsaid, of course, is that the white market, which controlled most resources,  definitely demanded segregation.

Despite Nutter and Buchanan’s notion that market efficiency would lower the costs of education and that significant funds could be generated from selling off school property to private interests, it beggars the imagination that the diversity would be that great. Nutter and Buchanan promised a diverse school system, but their ethical stance required three different school systems. They wanted us to believe that not only would a “classical education” would be on offer, but it would be on offer in a whites-only, blacks-only, and integrated buildings. The idea that Virgina, which had been proving for decades that it could not afford two separate school systems, would suddenly have the funds for three is laughable. That the resulting system would be inequitable was fine with Nutter and Buchanan, however:

Class distinctions may, after all, be incidentally sharpened by differentiations in products of any kind–by, for example, having both Cadillacs and Chevrolets. But few will argue that this is a valid ground for forcing automobile companies to produce as single standardized ‘democratic’ model.

Well, no. But then Cadillacs and Chevrolets are only incidentally connected to democratic governance. As the Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education:

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

The “facts” reported by Nutter and Buchanan are that these ideas in Brown are a pipe dream, Since standardized education requires a “efficiency and progress will have to be sacrificed to some degree in order to achieve it. The primary lesson of economics is that we cannot have our cake and eat it too.”  Sorry, black kids! Those are the “economic facts” that James Buchanan urged the Virginia legislature to recognize.

In the end, the Virginia legislature did not vote to privatize schools, but Prince Edward County did, setting off another five years of litigation. While whites scurried to build an all-white segregation academy, African Americans refused to take the bait, sacrificing the education of their children for the cause, boycotting private schools completely. Because African-American children were completely without schooling, white segregationists offered the “Southside School” for black students. As Titus described the reaction:

Parents responded to the Southside Schools offer by refusing to enroll their children. The decision—which required balancing their children’s immediate needs and their commitment to dismantling Jim Crow—was no doubt agonizing for many. But it was all but unanimous. James Ghee, barred from school at age fourteen, saw great significance in the refusal to countenance this offer, noting in 1989 that “it meant something was unique about Prince Edward. (p. 42)

Furthermore, black residents deeply resented the high-handed way in which the segregationists who orchestrated the school closings now styled themselves the self-appointed benefactors of their children. In claiming the high ground of concern for the children, Southside Schools organizers sought to appropriate for themselves the mantle of “responsible leadership” and further their characterization of their opponents as irresponsible and uncaring. Tobacco farmer George Morton was singularly unimpressed with such noblesse oblige. “Why should I follow men,” he asked, “who don’t acknowledge Almighty God and the Supreme Court?” (p. 44)

Segregationists were delighted, however. In his book, The Southern Case for School Segregation, Kilpatrick thought privatization was the key to keeping segregation:

And if, in addition, entirely apart from any racial considerations whatever, a freedom-of-choice program can be put in motion to stimulate the growth of private education, the South’s school problems can be controlled for a long time to come.(p. 190)

The damn blacks were to blame for their own problems, he declared:

The private schools now operating in Virginia have limited their admissions, to the best of my knowledge, to white pupils only. This condition may change in time; nothing prevents the organization of nonprofit schools for Negroes only, or for Negroes and whites together. (p. 185)

In 1964, when the Supreme Court ordered Prince Edward county to reopen its public schools and tax its citizens to do so, Kilpatrick had this to say about the county in which no African-American children had attended schools for five years:

“Despite the fact that the ‘colored children’ of Prince Edward have not been denied one single benefit, opportunity, or advantage made available by the county to white children, in some fashion perceived only by the Supreme Court, the colored children have been denied ‘equal protection.’

James M. Buchanan, on the other hand said…….. nothing. Not a word about how his plan was praised by segregationists, or how implementing it in Prince Edward county brought none of the benefits he had promised, nothing about the five years African-American children went without schooling, private or otherwise. As the years passed, he said nothing about reports like this 1970 report from the Office of Economic Opportunity:

Creating a completely free market for schooling would almost certainly result in more segregation by race, income, and ability. It would also result in a redistribution of educational resources from disadvantaged to advantaged children. Taken together, these changes would probably leave students from low-income families further behind students from high income families than they are now. This increase in inequality would in turn tend to widen the gap and intensify conflict between racial groups, between economic groups, and between political interests.

James Buchanan’s silence on all these issues was deafening. The idea that increasing privatization of schools will increase racial disparities is very, very real. Ignoring the past actions of economists like James Buchanan certainly does not help the right’s case for school vouchers. Buchanan might not have been a racist, but he was a segregationist.

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2 thoughts on “School Vouchers, James Buchanan, and Segregation

  1. Pingback: The White Ignorance of Milton Friedman | Fardels Bear

  2. Pingback: Was James Buchanan a Racist? Libertarians and Historical Research | Fardels Bear

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