Private means to create a public good were an integral part of black education. Yet, as the historians Joseph Crespino, Lisa McGirr, Kevin Kruse, and Charles Bolton documented, white families used privatization for different purposes after the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Faced with the prospect of attending school with black children, white families and supportive lawmakers began to adopt “freedom of choice” plans. Black and Latino families had the choice to enroll in public schools across the South by the 1960s, but the onus fell squarely upon families of color to enroll in white schools. The rates of desegregation were consequently negligible without federal protection or guidelines.
At the same time, private schools and “segregation academies” emerged as an alternative presented to those who wanted to avoid desegregated schools while public schools precipitously dropped in public opinion. When lawmakers began to implement busing policies in the late 1960s to hasten desegregation, Richard Nixon ran on an “anti-busing” campaign as part of his larger southern strategy. Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, advocated abolishing the Department of Education, which his administration declaring that public schools put our “nation at risk.” In this way, “the Great Communicator” cultivated a narrative of failure for public schools, which expedited national divestment in public education and hastened white flight.
Privatization and school choice thus emerged as a viable alternative to those with the means to escape the perils of public education. Prior to the nomination of DeVos, the most recent instance of federal support for privatizing education is found in the Every Student Succeeds Act, the education law that replaced No Child Left Behind. Passed in the twilight of President Obama’s administration, the act significantly reduced the power of the federal Department of Education and increased funding for private governance of public schools through charter schools. As he exits the White House, one aspect of President Obama’s legacy that will be preserved is his facilitation of school choice by entrusting the provision of public education to private entities such as charters.
Ongoing privatization under Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration therefore represents a continuation of policy since the Brown decision in 1954, rather than an abrupt change. The Every Student Succeeds Act, which would be enforced by Betsy DeVos, implies that the federal government is scaling back oversight, which could allow negligent funding disparities and civil-rights violations to exist. This ideological context, which will likely perpetuate discrimination, is not unlike the bygone era that supported legal disenfranchisement.
Education history suggests that current privatization or charter-school laws allow for communities to regain control of public schools much like civic leaders were forced to do during the era of segregation. Indeed, the Movement for Black Lives recently included “community control” in a comprehensive platform, which included the call for “real community control by parents, students, and community members of schools including democratic school boards and community control of curriculum, hiring, firing, and discipline policies.” This draws upon the history of black educators who have utilized private means at their disposal and public funding when available to teach their own children.