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How Milton Friedman Exploited White Supremacy to Privatize Education

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“School choice” aimed to block the choice of equal, integrated education for Black families

This paper traces the origins of today’s campaigns for school vouchers and other modes of public funding for private education to efforts by Milton Friedman beginning in 1955. It reveals that the endgame of the “school choice” enterprise for libertarians was not then— and is not now—to enhance education for all children; it was a strategy, ultimately, to offload the full cost of schooling onto parents as part of a larger quest to privatize public services and resources. Based on extensive original archival research, this paper shows how Friedman’s case for vouchers to promote “educational freedom” buttressed the case of Southern advocates of the policy of massive resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. His approach—supported by many other Mont Pelerin Society members and leading libertarians of the day —taught white supremacists a more sophisticated, and for more than a decade, court-proof way to preserve Jim Crow. All they had to do was cease overt focus on race and instead deploy a neoliberal language of personal liberty, government failure and the need for market competition in the provision of public education.