'Brown v. Board of Education' It Ain't

I hear some of George W. Bush's best friends are black. The same man who went vote-shopping at the racist Bob Jones University is now telling us that the US Supreme Court's 5-4 voucher pasquinade is "just as historic" as the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision that outlawed school segregation. Well, yes, if you consider a ruling that will complete the dissolution of everything the Brown decision was supposed to accomplish a major milestone in the US timeline, then I suppose the distinguished Mr. Bush is correct. It's damned historic.

It's appropriate that conservatives should steal another symbol from the civil-rights movement -&endash; like the "lynching" accusation hurled at opponents of activist judges Charles Pickering and Clarence Thomas -&endash; to celebrate their latest assault on the public schools. That crusade has been a consistent goal of conservatives, ever since Southern racists fled to the Goldwater camp back in the 1960s &endash;- as a result of, yes, the Brown decision and ensuing desegregation efforts.

Public schools were fine for those old racists' kids until the federal government had to force them to allow black children to escape their substandard segregated schools. Suddenly, paying for education with tax dollars was so 1953. Those "new traditionalist" Republicans have fought bitterly since the 1960s to gut, to harangue, to ridicule, to discredit public education. They have created a crisis so they can "fix" it with vouchers. They really hit their stride during the Reagan/first Bush years with an administration adamantly opposed to public education. They were buoyed by a growing ultraconservative movement, fueled by think tanks and rightist academics who made no bones about their goals, at least among their own.

In 1990, a group of 39 conservative aces gathered to address this question posed by the Heritage Foundation for its Policy Review: "What should be the 10 most important foreign and domestic policy priorities for the conservative movement in the 1990s?" The roster was filled with rightist celebs: Texas US Rep. Dick Armey; Gary Bauer, then of the Family Research Council; David Boaz of the Cato Institute; North Carolina US Sen. Jesse Helms, from the segregationist hall of fame; Texas US Sen. Phil Gramm; Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly; Free Congress Foundation founder Paul Weyrich (who coined "moral majority"); Reason editor Virginia Postrel; former Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont; Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde; Detroit News editorial-page editor Thomas Bray; Christian soldier Pat Robertson; Florida US Sen. Connie Mack, and about every buttoned-up right-wing think tanker you can imagine. Their suggestions were evidence of most every conservative plot we progressives fear &endash;- from "free-market environmentalism," to returning abortion to the states ("where the Founders intended moral issues to find resolution"), to squelching children's rights ("which always turn out to be rights against parents"), to stopping the "feminization of the US military."

On the question of public education, there is only one choice: Do away with it. The intellectuals recommended: "Separate school and state. We need to de-socialize America's learning industry at every level from pre-school to graduate school." A primary benefit would be a reversal of liberal education, they added, but subtle warfare was needed: "Unfortunately, educational choice has been tagged by the media as a 'Religious Right' issue; choice advocates must play down the religious angle and find some secular humanist spokesmen. More diversity in education would also mean fewer students being indoctrinated by pro-big-government textbooks and teachers."

With those guys' brand of "diversity," parents here in my home state could "choose" to use their tax money to send their kids to the private options available around the state since 1969: "seg academies" with rebel flags and Colonel Sanders-esque mascots. They also could ensure the indoctrination of unquestioning young capitalist soldiers at the same time. Those whose choices are rejected would form the large underclass of poor service workers to do the chosen's bidding.

Notice what Bush doesn't say in his platitudes. "We're interested in aiming toward excellence for every child, and the voucher system is a part of the strategy," he said in Cleveland on July 1. He didn't say "achieve excellence for every child"; his ilk's Social Darwinist approach believes that rewards should only come to those who meet their standards, regardless of individual obstacles. It's like thinking that, somehow, down-trodden slave progeny, mired by Jim Crow in a depraved caste system, would suddenly rise up and found WorldCom the second federal troops finally enforced the Brown decision 15 years after it was handed down. These folks are either stupidly naïve or evil; the jury's still out on which description fits Mr. Bush.

Maybe it was useful, though, that Bush conjured the memory of the Brown decision. It can remind us that a backward activist court, even of the Supreme kind, can be overturned. I'm not always with the teachers' unions these days -&endash; especially on nonsensical zero-tolerance discipline &endash;- but I like what National Education Association President Bob Chase said at the NEA national convention in Dallas on July 2. "Because the Court can say that vouchers are unconstitutional &endash;- just as the Court for 60 years said that segregated schools were constitutional &endash;- that does not make it right. And it certainly does not make it wise public policy," Chase said.

But vouchers are an extremely deceptive public ploy -&endash; proponents use a faulty idealistic argument to convince disadvantaged families who really want their children to get better schooling. They point to the best private schools and the worst public schools, pretending that the idea is to transport all the kids from the latter into the former, which will welcome them with open arms. "[T]he court declared that our nation will not accept one education system for those who can afford to send their children to a school of their choice and for those who can't," Bush said.

I'd invite Mr. Bush to visit my hometown of Philadelphia, Miss. Rather ironically, considering its history, the public schools there are amazingly integrated. After the National Guard showed up in 1969, white academies sprang up all over the state. But my hometown was, overall, too poor to support one; the closest is in the woods some 20 miles from town. Now my high school is one of the more segregated in the state with award-winning extracurricular options, Talented and Gifted programs, and true diversity. But in counties around Neshoba are lots of rural white academies, many of which can barely afford a few computers or a band. The students are getting a very limited education, clearly the kind the Heritage clan wanted, though. They learn the "three Rs" (sic), but they know very little about the complicated history of Mississippi, much less the US. Guess which schools would benefit from a voucher program in this state? After his Neshoba tour, Mr. Bush ought to head on up to the Delta to see where the voucher-created underclass will really be propagated.

Of course, conservatives and racists have presented us with a false dilemma. After all the white flight and the public-education bashing, many schools are a mess. They need funding; they need dedication; they need support. What will they get if vouchers allow half the student body to take their tax dollars and run to a rich private school? Padlocks.

My opinions have always been shaped by where I come from. That's why I've never been one of these nouveau states' rightists like many of my New York and Western friends. That's why tasteless, self-serving uses of race language make me cringe. And that's why I could never support private-school vouchers. I can't fathom the idea of even one tax dollar helping a student attend a school set up to defy Brown v. Board of Education.

No matter how historic.

Donna Ladd ( is a writer in Jackson, Miss. E-mail her at

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