Home > Uncategorized > Retired Journalism Professor’s Op Ed Piece Connects the Dots Linking Segregationists, Free Marketers, and Vouchers

Retired Journalism Professor’s Op Ed Piece Connects the Dots Linking Segregationists, Free Marketers, and Vouchers

Retired Western Illinois University journalism professor Bill Knight wrote an op ed piece for the Canton (IL) Daily Ledger titled “Right Wing’s Targeting Public Schools Tied to Segregation”, an essay that links the so-called “free market” anti-monopoly theory of public education to its racist roots.

As in previous posts on this broad topic, Mr. Knight draws on Nancy MacLean’s recently published book, “Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.” After over a half century since the ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, Ms. MacLean asserts that the segregationists are using “choice” and vouchers to re-segregate schools based on race…. and the neo-liberals who support those concepts are complicit in this trend. Drawing on MacLean’s book, Knight writes:

The radical Right supports private school vouchers (an obsession of DeVos, a long-time advocate) not because of a commitment to improve education, but because it weakens government, from Washington to local school boards. Long an American ideal, public education started coming under fire after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in “Brown v. Board of Education” ruled that separate schools based on race were unconstitutional since they denied equal access to education. Southern white elites resisted desegregation and used economic arguments to criticize public schools to neutralize integration, MacLean said.

“These ultra free-market/property supremacist ideas got their first test, and it is in the situation of the most conservative whites’ reaction to ‘Brown’,” she said. Economist “Milton Friedman, had written his first manifesto for school vouchers in 1955 as the news was coming out of the South. That was after several years of reports on these arch-segregationists, saying they were going to destroy public education and send kids off to private schools.”

And while Friedman’s manifesto on vouchers might have been rooted in economic theory, some of his acolyte’s used his free market theory to advance their segregationist views:

Other conservative economists, such as James McGill Buchanan and Warren Nutter, argued that public schools were a “monopoly,” MacLean found. Ten days after courts prohibited Virginia from shutting down schools in some communities while maintaining them in others, Buchanan and Nutter recommended Virginia privatize all its schools and sell them to private providers that could profit from the once-public resources, the author said. The two went so far as to propose eliminating the requirement that there be public education in the constitution – which the Right’s long crusade called “government schools.” Removing the requirement would enable privatization on a massive scale.

The phrase “government schools” and the notion of a sclerotic “monopoly” on public education all stemmed from Friedman’s thinking… and both concepts were used to sanitize the racism that rooted these notions.

And Mr. Knight also flags Ms. MacLean’s linking this “free market” thinking to the anti-union sentiments that underpin Freidman’s ideas. She contends that the Right doesn’t oppose unions based on education principles but rather because they exemplify the kind of unity that undercuts libertarianism and supports government programs:

“It’s not because they are only concerned about the quality of education and think that teachers are blocking that,” MacLean said. “This is a cause that hated public education before there were teachers unions. Today, with so many industrial jobs destroyed or outsourced or automated, our main labor unions are teachers unions, and teachers unions are really important forces for defending liberal policy in general, things like Social Security and Medicare, as well as public education. In targeting teachers’ unions, they’re really trying to take out their most important opponents.

“They hate the idea of collectives (they would call them), whether it’s labor-union, civil-rights [or] women’s groups,” she continued, “and any kind of government provision for people’s needs. In their dream society, every one of us is solely responsible for ourselves and our needs, whether it’s for education or retirement security or health care. We should just do ourselves.”

I concur completely with Ms. MacLean’s thinking on these issues. The go-it-alone ethos is uniquely American  and the “Take Back America” slogan captures the resentment many voters feel toward those who are “takers” and those, like union members, who have higher wages, better benefits, and greater job security than the “independent contractors” who work in the so-called “gig economy”. And when the union workers in question draw their revenues from taxation the resentment is even deeper and stronger. And when this economic resentment is combined with racism, it yields the toxic environment we are witnessing today.

How do we turn this around? Only by appealing to the higher angels in people. Service learning projects, the creation of clubs at public schools that promote humanitarian causes as opposed to athletics and careers, and direct instruction and direct experience in how democracy works would all be helpful. As long as schools are viewed as career-preparation we are reinforcing the go-it-alone ethos that led us to where we are today…. where those who have made their fortune are loath to share it with others and so the .1% cling to their “earnings” while the vast majority of the workforce works from paycheck to paycheck.

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