When America first legally integrated its public schools, it faced many years of “massive resistance” from racist white people. Today, private schools—particularly in the South—exist as a shadow system of segregated education.
A new report from the Southern Education Foundation, written up in the Washington Post today, examines the racial makeup of private schools across the country. You may be shocked to learn that, for the most part, the higher a state’s black population is, the more students of color are underrepresented in its private schools. (Mississippi, the state with the highest percentage of black residents, is also the state where white students are most overrepresented in private schools.) Also, “Forty-three percent of the nation’s private school students attended virtually all-white schools, compared to 27 percent of public-school students.”
Since the civil rights era, private school enrollment has been on the decline—except in the South, where it has been rising ever since the passage of the Civil Rights Act. And private schools are whiter than public schools everywhere, but in the South they are whiter than they are anywhere else. We can argue all we want about the reasons—and parents will!—but the fact is that private schools in America are deeply tied to our legacy of racism.
There is no question that the existence of private schools makes it harder to create good public schools. One simple solution to all this is to abolish private schools, as our own John Cook once advocated. This might cause a bit of a backlash, leading to a new Civil War, which is really a huge hassle. A more moderate solution, advocated by the SEF authors, is to require any private school that accepts government money (in the form of vouchers) to admit any student who wants to attend. This is a kind of neat solution because it would put the school voucher advocates to the test—how much do they like giving vouchers to low-income students when suddenly little Aiden’s private school is 80% low income students of color? We might find that suddenly these voucher advocates experience a rapid change of heart and once again advocate a strong public school, over on the other side of town, away from Aiden’s school.
The fundamental issue is that we owe everyone a decent education. That is why we have public schools. If you put every student in public schools, you can be sure that the public schools will get better, because the parents with power will see to it that they do. If you allow all the parents with power to opt out of public schools, the public school system will segregate and crumble, as it has been. The idea of forcing everyone into public schools is attractive. But in the interest of avoiding a Civil War II, maybe we should just levy a 100% tax on private school tuition, and put that money back into public schools. When we finish gold-plating the public schools, perhaps the private school parents will have a change of heart.