While schools remain highly segregated by race across the United States, the de jure kind of segregation in which Southern states had explicit laws to separate white from African American children was eradicated during two decades’ of civil rights struggles that followed the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. As the Brown precedent was used to test and overturn segregation statutes across the South, one of the responses was to offer various tax credits to families whose children moved to the private, white segregation academies. In a major report released at the end of March, Race and Ethnicity in a New Era of Public Funding of Private Schools, the Southern Education Foundation traces that history as a backdrop for an up-to-date investigation of the role of private schools today as segregationist escapes for white children and the implications of the expansion of tax credits and vouchers to support private schools that virtually exclude African American, Hispanic and American Indian children.
Here is a bit of the history recounted in the report: “From 1954 to 1964, Southern state legislatures enacted as many as 450 laws and resolutions attempting to block, postpone, limit, or evade the desegregation of public schools. A large number of these acts were aimed at re-directing public resources, including those in the public school system, to benefit private schools.” But such statutes were eventually overturned by the early 1970s: “Each of these enactments supporting private schools, even indirect efforts like tax credits shrouded in non-racial language were invalidated by federal courts or abandoned by Southern states that faced likely court challenges because the bills were seen as indirect, covert efforts to evade or disrupt public school desegregation….”
Today, according to this report, beginning in the 1990s, nineteen states have once again passed vouchers or tuition tax credits to pay students’ tuition at private schools including nine states across the South: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia: “Most legislation adopted and considered to fund private schools in the Southern states in recent years has been introduced and supported with the stated purpose of improving educational opportunities and success for low income students, many of whom are students of color, especially African American and Hispanic students.” The report notes that most of these states “do not collect or publicly provide reliable data that includes reporting of the race and ethnicity of students who attend private schools with public funding. For this reason, there is no verifiable means at this time to determine accurately the demographic characteristics of private school students whose attendance has been subsidized by state funds….”
The Southern Education Foundation therefore considers another question as a proxy for the unavailable documentation that would identify the number of children of color receiving vouchers and tax credits: “(W)hat is the role of private schools in comparison to public schools, in educating students of color in the South and the nation?” After all: “Unlike public schools… private schools… are often entirely free to decide which children to admit as students, so long as the schools adopt a non-discriminatory policy and publicly declare that they do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Therefore, an analysis of enrollment patterns among white students in private schools throughout the 50 states can advance an understanding of the choices that private schools have made, with and without public funding, in selecting students to admit.”
What are the report’s findings?
- Across the South, from 1998 to 2012, the percentage of white private school students exceeded the number of total white students in the region by 20 percentage points, twice the margin in the rest of the nation.
- Across the U.S., from 1998 to 2012, the number of all students enrolled in private schools declined slightly for both white and students of color.
- A third measure is what the report calls “virtual segregation” of white students—white students comprising 90 to 100 percent of a school’s enrollment. “In 2012, white students were far more likely to be educated in virtual segregation in private schools than in public schools. “Forty-three percent of the nation’s private school (white) students attended virtually all-white schools in contrast to 26.9 percent of public school students.” In South Carolina, 63 percent of white students in private schools were being educated in extremely segregated settings compared to 5 percent of the state’s public school students. The difference in Mississippi is 56 percent segregation of white students in private schools vs. 15 percent in the public schools.
- The report adds another category: virtual exclusion—the number of white students attending private schools with 10 percent or less students of color. “Nearly two-thirds of white students attending private schools across the 50 states were in schools that virtually excluded African American, Hispanic, and Native American students.” Again South Carolina led the states with 84 percent of white students in South Carolina’s private schools attending schools that exclude children of color. Delaware came in second with 72 percent of white private school students attending schools with a virtual absence of racial-ethnic minorities. “Seven of the ten states with the largest measures of racial exclusion in private schools were in the South… The percentage of white students in private schools in the 15-state South exceeded the percentage in the public schools by 37 percentage points.”
The report’s conclusion: “Today… private schools in nine states of the South, and eight other states including Kansas and Arizona in the rest of the nation have begun to receive special public funding through vouchers and/or state tax credits. As a result, private schools receiving special public funds are no longer entirely private, no longer free of special government support. With the special public funding of vouchers and tax credits, private schools should have a higher pubic duty to observe higher public standards—higher standards of non-discrimination—than before. In other words, public funding of private schools, directly or indirectly, should… mean that token desegregation and ‘schools for whites’ among the private schools in the South and other sections of the nation are no longer acceptable as a matter of law or practice… The predominance of virtual segregation and virtual exclusion, which this study documents in private schools in the South and beyond, is clear and convincing evidence that private schools are failing to achieve a practice that meets a reasonable public standard for non-discrimination.”