Since the passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act in May, conversations have focused on the separation of church and state, costs of education and parental choice without any mention of the not-so-far-off history of school vouchers in North Carolina. Without incorporating our history into the debate, we lose out on important lessons from the past.
In 1955, the Supreme Court handed down the second part of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which addressed the actual implementation of desegregation in public schools. The Supreme Court mandated that desegregation occur with all deliberate speed. This shift in the legal attitude toward segregation did not reflect the attitude of white administrators and families in Southern school systems.
In order to severely delay desegregation, Gov. Luther Hodges (1954-1960) appointed the Pearsall Committee, which proposed giving white families vouchers to attend private schools so they could avoid soon-to-be integrated public schools. The Pearsall Plan, enacted in 1956, assured that no child will be forced to attend a school with children of another race in order to get an education.
The plan emphasized choice the choice for whites to avoid integration. Even though the statutes declared that these vouchers would be available for any child of any race, they were explicitly meant for white families whose local schools would be integrated in response to federal pressure.
Hodges and the Pearsall Committee planned for public, white schools to voluntarily dissolve themselves. Vouchers would provide the funds for white children to attend private, segregated schools. According to their plan, which never fully came to fruition, the public school system would be gutted to make way for privatized education education that gave parents a choice.
The language of choice used in the 1950s has found its way back to North Carolina in 2013.
While the Opportunity Scholarship Act provides vouchers only for low-income students in its first year, the trajectory of the program is clear. Each year, the income of households that qualify will steadily increase until vouchers become available to families that can actually afford the average private school in North Carolina.
While yesterdays school vouchers were about race, todays vouchers are about economic class. Rather than fund public schools that serve the general population, money will continue to be funneled into private schools that serve primarily the upper-income households. The General Assembly already plans to increase the appropriations by $10 million in the 2015-2016 fiscal year. Much like in the 1950s, schools vouchers are a symbol of giving up on the public school system.
In 1955, choice meant the ability to avoid integration. Choice meant turning away from public education when it threatened the status quo. Today, giving parents the choice to avoid the public school system is inadvertently condemning it. Public education has been and continues to be contested terrain. Yet, for all the difficulties the system has and continues to face, public education in North Carolina has had its incredible strengths.
We need to be clear about the real choice we are extending with school vouchers. And what the consequences of these choices will be.
Micah Khater of Raleigh is a junior at N.C. State University studying history and French.