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The Troubling History and Present Danger of School Vouchers

By Jon Hale

School building
Photo credit: Dave Blanchard

Last week, the State Board of Education in Florida allowed parents to apply for vouchers and enroll in a different school if their children were subject to “COVID-19 harassment.” The policy enforces Governor Ron DeSantis’ anti-masking directive. His order protects parents’ “freedom to choose” whether to mask or not, despite an alarming rise in COVID cases in the state. The order also threatened to withhold funding if school boards did not comply with the law.

Gov. DeSantis’ “freedom to choose” and the use of vouchers to protect that freedom has a troubled history in Florida—as it does across the country.

A school voucher is publicly funded credit used to cover the cost of private schools. School vouchers fund or compensate a family directly as opposed to funding a public school. It is part of the conservative and libertarian mantra of “funding students, instead of systems” that is a cornerstone of the modern school choice movement.

The storied history behind vouchers and school choice in Florida and across the nation, however, is much more insidious than simply funding students.

In Florida and across the South, vouchers were initially designed to circumvent desegregation after the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision. They were an integral part of “school choice” policies.

Southern legislators amended state constitutions to support private school costs by compensating the cost of tuition through grants. They provided state tax credit for contributions to private segregated schools. In addition to vouchers, policymakers repealed compulsory education laws, authorizing school closures if ordered to desegregate by the government or courts. Legislators also expanded the decision-making authority of local school boards to implement pupil-placement laws.

Florida and other states also passed “freedom of choice” plans to avoid desegregation. On paper, anyone regardless of race could apply to any school in the area. But the plans placed the onus of desegregation on Black families. Withholding transportation for white schools while harassing Black transfer students, white parents and representatives ensured that such plans were largely ineffective, leading only to token desegregation.

These policies coincided with other forms of massive resistance to desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s that targeted Black schools and teachers. Legislators shuttered historically black schools and fired Black teachers with impunity.

Passed in the wake of the Brown decision, it was clear that vouchers and “school choice” were weapons in the larger fight to preserve segregation. Vouchers—and school choice in general—were used to maintain segregation and preserve control of the schools.

Though courts struck vouchers down as part of the “freedom of choice” plans in the 1960s, the idea of vouchers remained. Ronald Reagan, for instance, touted vouchers and privatization in his administration. His plans were soundly defeated, but the idea persisted and even garnered judicial support.

By the 1990s, courts retreated from enforcing desegregation goals and schools largely remained segregated—and many districts re-segregated. This paved the way for vouchers, which, on paper, promised to reform a broken public system. Once the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of vouchers in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) and more recently in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020) decision, vouchers advocates renewed their commitment.

Betsy DeVos, the controversial Secretary of Education under Donald Trump, provided unabashed support for vouchers. She advocated for millions for vouchers and other choice options such as charter schools. Though largely rebuffed by Congress, like Reagan, DeVos ignited demand and support for vouchers, positioning them as a valid option in the larger school choice debate.

Vouchers remained an enticing option for DeSantis and other southern governors like Henry McMaster of South Carolina, who proposed spending COVID relief funding on vouchers for private schools.

Today, vouchers are used in Florida in the same way as they were in the past. Gov. DeSantis passed the anti-masking mandate to “protect the freedoms and rights of students and parents.” Much like the 1950s and 1960s in the attempt to avoid desegregation and federal oversight, “freedom” is used to protect the right of parents to avoid governmental intervention.

Then and now, the use of “freedom” in this way is detrimental to the public good. In the 1950s and 1960s, the freedom to choose schools protected the right of white parents to support private “segregation academies.” The sole purpose was to preserve all-white schools. This allowed racist policy, segregation, and diversion of public funds to fester.

Also like the past, linking vouchers to freedom—in this case freedom from masks—is not only suspect, but immediately precarious. In the current context of the pandemic, vouchers effect a parallel danger to society and the larger public good. DeSantis illuminates the harm perpetuated by vouchers and legislating the “right to choose” schools. After the schools reopened this fall, COVID cases have been soaring in Florida. In one district, over 10,000 students, staff, and teachers were isolated or quarantined after the first week of school. Other districts that reported hundreds of cases have defied the governor’s orders and mandated masks.

Public schools in Florida—and other states with voucher policies—are under dual threats. They face a continual risk of losing funds over implementing recommended CDC guidelines while also losing public funds to private schools through vouchers.

The historical record documents the danger of vouchers to a shared public good. The recent use of vouchers in Florida merely affirms the clear and present danger it continues to pose.


About the Author 

Jon Hale is a professor of educational history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an advocate for quality public education. Hale’s research in education has been published in The Atlantic,, Education Week, the American Scholar, and the African American Intellectual History Series. His books include The Freedom Schools, To Write in the Light of Freedom, and The Choice We FaceFollow him on Twitter at @ed_organizer.