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Texas almost approved a school voucher program in the 1950s – to avoid desegregation.

Henry B. Gonzalez stands in a light suit and gestures with a book on the floor of the Texas Senate during his first term as state senator.
UNT Libraries Special Collections
Henry B. Gonzalez filibustered for hours to block a vote on racial segregation bills on the floor of the Texas Senate in 1957.

Republican lawmakers in Texas have made school vouchers a priority during the most recent legislative session, and their prize bill will likely cross a pivotal hurdle next week.

On Monday, May 15, the House Education Committee will discuss passing Senate bill 8 on to the full chamber for a vote. The bill would essentially allow families to use public funds for private school tuition.

Controversial since their inception, school vouchers have been around in the U.S. since at least the 1950s, when Southern states used them as a tool to circumvent desegregation.

Texas nearly joined them.

Segregation vouchers

In 1957, the Texas House approved a bill that would have given any family that withdrew their child from an integrated school a “tuition grant” to attend a private school.

The bill was part of a package of legislation sent to the state Senate with one goal: keeping schools segregated by race.

According to historian Gregg Michel with the University of Texas at San Antonio, Southern states across the country passed similar bill packages after the landmark Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

“Taken together, they all were designed to really thwart Brown,” Michel said, “which is why by ten years after Brown, something like 1% or 2% of schools had made progress towards desegregation.”

Michel said keeping schools separate but equal was part of the Texas Democratic Party’s platform in the mid-’50s (Democrats were in power at the time). In 1956, Gov. Allan Shivers sent Texas Rangers to Mansfield, Texas, to block the court-ordered integration of a high school there.

“If the executive of the state is not going to enforce it, that creates a problem on the ground,” Michel said. “And so, there was very little political will.”

Shivers also appointed a committee to compile a report on ways to avoid desegregation; many of their ideas were included in the package of segregation bills passed by the Texas House in 1957.

But a small group of state senators managed to derail the passage of most of the segregation bills — including the voucher proposal.

San Antonio’s Henry B. Gonzalez, Texas’s first Latino state senator, and Laredo’s Abraham “Chick” Kazen, the son of Lebanese immigrants, led the group in a 36-hour filibuster.

“A remarkable, at the time longest ever, filibuster on the floor of the Senate,” Michel said. “Gonzalez was particularly effective and spoke for more than 20 hours himself. The senators who supported the segregationist laws sought for ways to stop the filibuster, and they couldn't do it. And they eventually negotiated it and caved.”

Modern race-based arguments

Decades later, voucher supporters’ arguments have flipped. Instead of helping white students leave an integrated public school, modern private school choice advocates like Derrell Bradford say vouchers give students of color access to private schools that can better meet their needs.

“I went to half of middle school and all of high school at (a private) all-boys day school on a scholarship, and it was the most important thing that ever happened to me,” said Bradford, president of 50 CAN, an organization that supports local groups advocating for school choice.

“I want every kid to have the same kind of opportunity that I had,” he said. “Sometimes it's your neighborhood school, and that's great, and sometimes it isn't. And the color of your skin and how much money your parents make and where you live shouldn't be the things that determine that.”

Bradford prefers a popular modern twist on vouchers called Education Savings Accounts, which give the funds to parents rather than private schools. He thinks it gives parents more power to choose the best form of education for their child.

However, opponents of vouchers and Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs, say they hurt students of color.

“There's no civil rights protections,” said Jaime Puente with the left-leaning think tank Every Texan. “If you’re a special-needs student, if you learned that you had some kind of learning disability… you're on your own.”

Puente said he understands wanting Black and Latino students to have access to prestigious private schools — he went to a Catholic boy’s school in Houston. But he doesn’t think vouchers or ESAs will give them that access because they don’t cover the full cost of tuition.

$8,000 wouldn't have done anything for my family,” Puente said. “We still would have had to make sacrifices. These schools cost anywhere from $25,000 to $35,000 — almost $40,000 a year … And so, that's never going to be an option for the poorest student with the voucher.”

Puente thinks that money would be better served supporting public schools.

It's ridiculous that we are having these conversations about vouchers and spending this amount of money on a tiniest fraction of the state when we should be talking about investing in the system as a whole so that we can lift everyone up,” Puente said, adding that the state has long underfunded public education.

Bradford argues that an ESA worth $8,000 would make it easier for a private school to raise scholarship money to cover the rest. He thinks private-school options are needed because public schools are highly segregated, and that makes them inherently unequal.

“We have a system of public schooling in this country that is based on place, and we have a system of place in this country that is based on race,” Bradford said.

He said ESAs can help level the playing field for low-income kids of color by giving them access to an education that isn’t based on where they live.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Education News Desk, including H-E-B Helping Here, Betty Stieren Kelso Foundation and Holly and Alston Beinhorn.

Choice reduces diversity

Research shows that school choice hasn’t lessened segregation. In fact, it's often made it worse.

“Initially there was some hope that choice, because it breaks up these ties between where you live and where you go to school, that there could be a potential for greater desegregation. But we haven't seen that happen,” said Huriya Jabbar, an education policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Jabbar said the robust research on the impact charter schools have on segregation is clear: “Individual charter schools are generally more racially segregated than the traditional public schools in their area,” she said. “School choice tends to, on average, increase or at least reproduce the segregation in public schools. It's not mitigating that segregation.”

Even though public schools are often highly segregated by race and income, Jabbar said they’re still the best hope for integration.

“We lose the potential to (integrate schools) if we give up on public schools,” she said.

She said it’s important to keep working to increase school diversity because research has shown it consistently improves student outcomes.

“We don't have evidence of another policy solution that can make schools equal and high quality on such a large scale,” Jabbar said.

Jabbar thinks ESAs and vouchers will most likely also have a negative impact on school diversity.

But Bradford isn’t concerned by that prediction because public schools are already segregated. He said segregation caused by school choice is “less pernicious” because it is not government-mandated.

“It is instead things like Black families wanting to be in an environment where they feel like their kids are going to be affirmed, and, not for nothing, their history not erased in a public policy fight,” Bradford said.

Avoiding “woke agendas”

Public-school advocates argue that people who want to erase Black history do so by promoting vouchers.

“Vouchers have been, and continue to be, a product of white supremacy,” said Jaime Puente with Every Texan during public testimony for SB8, the voucher bill.

Puente said the fight against vouchers and its racist undertones decades ago has re-emerged as a new battle – over books and curriculum.

Distrust of public schools is a key part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s argument for using public funds for private schools. At rallies for ESAs this spring, Abbott repeatedly claimed public schools are “indoctrinating” kids.

Jabbar also sees parallels between the push for segregation vouchers in the 1950s and the language voucher advocates use today.

It's not surprising that those same types of policies are emerging right now, given our current social context, the racial reckoning the country is having, these attempts to stifle discussions around race and racism in schools,” Jabbar said.

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Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.