Deja Vu: Parents in Charge, Tuition Grants, and Choice in Education

As the U.S. District Courts began their final push to desegregate the public schools, I worked to establish Jefferson Davis Academy in Barnwell County at Blackville, South Carolina in 1964-65. My brother, the father of three small children, was the first president of the board of Jefferson Davis Academy and I was instrumental in naming it for the President of the Confederate States of America. Dr. T. Elliott Wannamaker, who led the founding of Wade Hampton Academy in Orangeburg was also the first President of the South Carolina Independent School Association(SCISA). In 1965, Dr. Wannamaker asked me to become the first Executive Director of SCISA, and I departed the practice of law in Barnwell to accept the offer.

SCISA's stated purpose was to aid in the establishment of private elementary and secondary schools and to coordinate cooperative academic and sports activities. The unstated purpose was to avoid the federally court-ordered racial desegregation of the public schools. Since we were following a longstanding Southern tradition of being racists in denial, we simply denied race had anything to do with our motives. Dr. Wannamaker and I often discussed how we should discreetly downplay race when asked by the media about the sudden flurry of private school activities, particularly in counties with large populations of blacks. We bristled with indignation when reporters referred to SCISA as an association of "segregated academies". We preferred to emphasize that we were simply putting parents in charge and giving them a choice of more educational opportunities for their children. .We publicly stated we were forming the private schools because we wanted smaller classes and more parental involvement and input in the curriculum, as we went about naming the schools for Confederate figures like Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Wade Hampton and even Nathan Bedford Forrest who founded the Klan. The white power structure rallied round the private schools in communities with heavy black populations.

A state supported tuition grant system for students in private schools was enacted, but the federal courts declared it unconstitutional because it circumvented the court's public school desegregation plan. Deja vu! The issue reemerges today with controversial private school tuition tax credit and scholarship plans being promoted by Governor Mark Sanford and the latest edition of the "putting parents in charge" movement in South Carolina and across the nation. Parental involvement, tuition grants, and choice in education sounds good, until you understand much of the motivation is white/class flight from racially integrated public schools attended by .mostly poor children.

South Carolina has a long and abysmal history of educating blacks and poor whites. Our state made it a crime to educate a black slave during slavery. Education-wise, poor whites fared little better. A History Of The South by Simkins and Roland says the census of 1850 showed an illiteracy ratio of 20.3 percent among the native white population of the slave states, with only 3 percent in the Middle States and 0 .42% in New England and that the South was criticized about as much for illiteracy as slavery. In South Carolina we had no public or "free" schools until our Reconstruction Legislature controlled by "Radical" Republicans and newly-freed, education-starved blacks established them.

All-black public schools were legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court with the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that furnished a legal basis for a segregated society in the South. In 1954, our highest court took a close look at black public schools in Clarendon County, South Carolina, and other segregated schools and declared they denied black children equal educational opportunity and equal protection of the law in the landmark case of Briggs v. Elliott, a/k/a Brown v. Board of Education. While white children rode busses, in the same district blacks walked to school; blacks used hand-me-down textbooks; blacks went to school only six months a year in some rural districts so they could work in the fields longer; and black schools were often shanty-like with wood stoves and outdoor privies. The promise of educational justice was proclaimed in the Brown case.

S.C. Superintendent of Education Charles Williams testified in 1987 in Federal Court that "job opportunities in the state were in agricultural and low-wage industries" and "the (educational) system was designed to fit the work force to the needs of the system."

Black service workers in the Lowcountry are putting their families first by struggling to furnish them the minimal necessities of life. Many such parents wake up at 4 AM, feed their children, and then ride a Rural Transportation Authority bus, sometimes for 2 hours or more to Hilton Head or Myrtle Beach, make beds, clean rooms and perform other low wage jobs for the multi-billion dollar tourist industry all day, then return home at 8 PM to feed their children and put them to bed. The future of such workers' children depends on educational and economic opportunity. Just because they live in poor, rural school districts they should not be deprived of a good education.

Diverting tax dollars desperately needed for public education, highway safety, and minimal health care and housing to tuition tax credits and scholarships for private and home schooling is wrong. We have a duty to fully fund public education in the poor school districts and put parents in charge by offering educational and economic opportunity to those who have been denied a fair chance so very long.

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