Nancy MacLean is an esteemed historian at Duke University, where she is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy. She specializes in the study of race, gender, labor history and social movements in the United States. Her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History ofthe Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America is must reading.
In this important paper, she examines the role of economist Milton Friedman in promoting school choice, segregation, and privatization.
The abstract:

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.

She describes the spread of ”school choice” legislation and writes:

A well-funded, laser-focused and integrated long game helped achieve these legislative triumphs. Indeed, it is difficult to find an institution on the American right that has not advocated “school choice.” Think tanks such as the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, along with affiliates of the State Policy Network, make the case for it. Engines of legal and judicial change such as the Federalist Society and the Institute for Justice workshop the constitutional issues and litigate for it. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) produces templates of “model laws” for its overwhelmingly Republican members to introduce it in state legislatures. Fox News broadcasts the talking points. Organizing efforts including Americans for Prosperity drive calls and letters to elected officials. Deep-pocketed donors underwrite the work. The campaigners employ a common language of personal liberty and anti-government, pro-market catch phrases. They tout the benefits of parents gaining the “freedom to choose” to send their children to private schools. And they claim that breaking up the “government monopoly” will promote “competition” that will improve the overall quality of education.2

“School choice” sounds like it offers options. But as I will show, the whole concept, as first implemented in the U.S. South in the mid-1950s, aimed to deny the choice of equal, integrated education to Black families. Further, Milton Friedman, soon to become the best-known neoliberal economist in the world, abetted the push for private schooling that southern states used to evade the reach of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1954 ruling that the segregation of public education violated the constitutional right of Black children to equal protection of the laws. So, too, did other libertarians of the day, among them leading pioneers of the cause that today avidly pushes private schooling.3
Perhaps most tellingly, though, the ultimate purpose was not really to benefit parents and children, even the white ones who patronized the new segregation academies. For Friedman and the libertarians, school choice was and is a strategy to ultimately offload the burden of paying for education onto parents, thus harming the educational prospects of most youth. As we will see, Friedman himself hoped it would discourage low-income parents from having children in a form of economic social engineering reminiscent of eugenics. He predicted that once they had to pay the entire cost of schooling from their own earnings, they would make different reproductive decisions.4

Please read this thoughtful, well-researched and alarming study to understand the dark history of “school choice.” This is a case where history illuminates the future.