Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

Buchanan’s position on vouchers and segregation: the documents MacLean missed

A central claim of Democracy in Chains holds that James M. Buchanan and the Thomas Jefferson Center (TJC) for Political Economy provided complicit aid and assistance to the segregationist “massive resisters” of late 1950s and early 1960s Virginia. As I’ve documented, this claim is both thinly attested in evidence and contradicted by what we do know about Buchanan’s views on segregation from his other writings – both before school desegregation and after. Still, Buchanan’s comments on segregation from the civil rights era itself are sparse, and author Nancy MacLean frequently exploits this presumed silence to conjure up an unholy alliance between Buchanan/the TJC and the segregationist political machine of Harry Flood Byrd, Sr.

MacLean generally stops short of linking Buchanan and Byrd outright, and does so by necessity. There is no evidence the two ever crossed paths in any substantive way. So instead of calling Buchanan a segregationist, she simply contends that he utilized the opportunity of segregation to advance a libertarian school voucher agenda at the expense of black students. To get to Byrd, she advances historically unsupported claims of a connection between Buchanan and Byrd-allied newspaper editor James J. Kilpatrick. But even more so, she relies on Buchanan’s own presumed silence on segregation to “read between the lines” of his voucher advocacy and discern a motive that is not evident from any straightforward reading.

But what if MacLean missed an important document in her research? What if Buchanan actually left a record that reflected unfavorably on segregation, and specifically explained its adversarial relationship to educational competition? Would Democracy in Chains warrant a substantial correction by its publisher and/or author? After all, the entire first half of the book is built upon a presumed yet never demonstrated relationship between Buchanan’s support for vouchers and the Byrd machine’s “massive resistance.” MacLean herself has even made this a point of primary emphasis in her public lectures on the book, and several of her most positive reviewers have interpreted the book as having “proven” a salacious and discrediting link between libertarianism and segregationism.

It turns out that such a document exonerating Buchanan does exist, and MacLean completely missed it. But first a little historical context.

In 1959 the state of Virginia adopted a modest tuition grant program that allowed students to receive up to $250 per term to attend a different school, public or private, than the one to which they were geographically assigned. The program was adopted in a special session of the legislature, shortly after state and federal courts struck down key provisions of a Byrd-backed segregation law in January 1959. The voucher proposal emerged from the political center of the time as something of a bridge between moderate integrationists and segregationists who were not in the hard-line “massive resistance” camp of Byrd – or who, in the case of Gov. J. Lindsay Almond, broke from former allegiances to the Byrd machine. Some members of the legislature backed the proposal for reasons that were without doubt motivated by segregationist positions. Specifically, vouchers would allow segregationist parents to remove their children from schools facing integration and seek an alternative means.

Note however that this position diverged from the “massive resisters” in several important ways. First, a sizable number of segregationist hardliners actually opposed the voucher program on the grounds that it would undermine their continued resistance and open the door to the integration of public schools. This is the position adopted by the attorneys for the Charlottesville school system when they contended that vouchers would open up formerly-white held seats in the public schools, which could then be “engulfed” by the enrollment of black students. Stopping vouchers actually became a key part of their strategy to preserve segregation.

Second, the designers of the tuition grant program on the state legislature’s Perrow Commission officially and intentionally made its terms race-neutral. They did so knowing that a racially restrictive voucher program would succumb to a federal court challenge. They had no other choice than to make the tuition grants available on non-racial grounds. This meant that black students were eligible for vouchers as well (and a small number actually made use of them during the program’s existence). It also meant that students in segregated schools could actually use the vouchers to move to integrated schools, both public and private. In fact, a federal judge made use of the statute’s race-neutral language in an important 1961 ruling against Prince Edward County, effectively prohibiting it from using the tuition grant program on account of its decision to shutter the public schools in response to impending integration.

The race-neutral language of the tuition grant statute became a flash point of contention during the early operation of the program – particularly among (a) segregationist hardliners who believed that vouchers would lead to “engulfment” of the public schools and (b) public school teachers unions, who wanted to restrict and rescind the voucher program at all costs.

Initial enrollment in the tuition grant system was limited. Just over 4,700 students signed up in its first year of operations. By 1962, the numbers had doubled to almost 9,500 students (note that Prince Edward County was excluded by court order from participating in the program, so its students are not part of this figure despite a number of historically careless attempts to causally link the county’s notorious school closures to the voucher program).

The Richmond Times-Dispatch (September 2, 1962) conducted an extensive study of the program’s first couple of years and noticed two interesting results where segregation was concerned. First, after conducting an extensive interview study of parents who used the tuition grants, they discovered that the most commonly cited reasons for participation related to conventional factors such as school quality, location, and transportation. While segregationist uses undeniably existed, a much smaller subset of parents stated that they were using the vouchers to remove their children from integrated schools to go to “segregation academies.” Other non-racial purposes appear to have been more common. Second, an analysis of tuition grant enrollments in selected population centers showed sizable numbers of students being removed from schools that were still segregated and placed into schools that had begun to integrate – or precisely the opposite of the segregationists’ position. While this latter statistic does not necessarily prove an overt integrationist intention by these parents, it does illustrate that some parents were availing themselves of vouchers for reasons other than race.

The growing use of tuition grants for non-segregationist purposes became sufficiently obvious by the early 1960s that it provoked the ire of the state’s main public school teacher’s union, the Virginia Education Association (the state affiliate of the NEA). Whereas MacLean writes of a wholly imaginary unholy alliance between Buchanan and the Byrd machine, a documented coalition emerged between the VEA and the hard line segregationists. The VEA spelled out its position at length in the November 1964 issue of its newsletter:

“It is a well-known fact that many superintendents, many school boards, many legislators and local governing bodies are becoming less and less enchanted with Virginia’s Pupil Scholarship Program because of its patent abuses.

Everyone knows that the intent of the General Assembly in establishing the scholarship program was to provide an escape for any pupil who might object, or whose parents might object to actually attending the same school with children of another race. The Pupil Scholarship Program would never have been enacted into law it the General Assembly had not been searching for a constitutionally valid way to subsidize private education for those who object to racial integration in the public schools.

Certainly the intent was not to subsidize private education generally. The Pupil Scholarship Program is being so greatly abused as to increasingly defeat its original purpose.

Ot the 12,181 scholarships granted in 1963-64, 10,776 were used in private schools, many of which were integrated, and 1,415 were used in public schools, many of which were integrated. Thus parents are using the grants to send their children to integrated schools which the entire purpose of the legislation was to avoid.”

As the VEA’s general secretary argued, these “abuses” of the voucher program for non-segregationist purposes threatened to cut into the funding of the public school system. As VEA secretary Robert F. Williams explained two years prior, “The position of the Virginia Education Association is simply this: We believe that the Pupil Scholarship law was passed with the tacit purpose that it would be used only to provide grants for children whose parents did not wish to attend a desegregated school. When used for any other purpose, the purpose of the law, as we understand it, is violated.”

The teacher’s union accordingly lobbied the state government to restrict the use of tuition grants to explicitly segregationist purposes. All other uses – including what appears to have been a majority of the vouchers – would be rendered illegal. An actual unholy alliance between the VEA teacher’s union officials and segregationists had been forged, and vouchers were their direct target.

The 1964 Thomas Jefferson Center Statistical Appendix on Tuition Grants

This is where Buchanan entered back into the picture. Although the 1959 article he co-authored with Warren Nutter had been almost entirely ignored in the state assembly, the two economists continued to study the state’s rudimentary tuition grant system from afar over the next several years. At one point in the early 1960s the TJC contracted with Charlottesville-based voucher advocate Leon Dure to administer a statewide survey of private schools for the purpose of creating an academic study of how the system was functioning in action. Dure has long been credited as the author of the resulting report, however this designation is mistaken. He actually left the project in mid-1964 after Nutter indicated that the TJC wanted to take it in a more statistical direction.

The TJC completed its report in-house in December 1964, and issued it as a standalone pamphlet featuring a reprint of the 1959 article and a series of appendixes that analyzed the previous five years of tuition grants. Of particular note is the statistical appendix, containing data analysis of both the private school survey and public records of the tuition grants. This specific appendix was issued under Buchanan’s own name and supervision. The cover letter to this section, both documenting Dure’s departure and crediting the final report to the TJC under his own direction, appears below:

Sure enough, this neglected and overlooked document contains an extended commentary on none other than the VEA’s public efforts to curtail all non-segregationist uses of the state’s tuition grant program. As the report explained:

“The Virginia Education Association, the organization of public school officials and teachers, early denounced “abuse” of the tuition grant plan. It meant by this expression any use of scholarships except to avoid racial intermixing. Neither the present law nor the regulations of the State Board of Education contain such limitation, although the 1956 law limited the payment of grants to parents who objected to sending their children to integrated public schools. Moreover, many public school officials have declared their policy to be one of discouraging tuition grant and, in one case, a local superintendent stated that the plan was so “absurd” his school board had concealed it from his community.”

An extended note at the end of the appendix proceeded to systematically pick apart the VEA’s segregation-supporting posture. The segregationist limitation of the 1956 law had been removed due to its unconstitutionality when the new tuition grant program was enacted in 1959. The program’s legislative history since then provided no support for the VEA’s attempts to restrict vouchers to segregationist uses. Quite the contrary, non-segregationist tuition grant uses were already well known and permitted within the first year of the program’s operation. As the TJC report noted:

“It is perhaps notable that when the scholarship statute was slightly revised and reenacted in 1960, scholarships were being used in integrated situations. The vote on scholarships was almost unanimous in 1959 and completely so in 1960. No action of any kind was taken in the regular sessions of 1962 and 1964, during all of which time the use of grants in integrated situations grew steadily.”

The TJC study further investigated the program’s uses with statistical analysis. Although black students represented a small minority of grant recipients, their enrollment grew dramatically from only 48 grant registrants in 1959 to 423 in 1963. The system was not without faults as “the school system of one locality may refuse admittance to any pupil from another locality.” Yet their findings also confirmed what the VEA denounced and derided as “abuses” of the system: “that pupils have been shifted from nonintegrated to integrated schools as well as from integrated to nonintegrated ones.” Reasons such as geography, school district quality, and transportation were all important considerations in parents’ decisions to use vouchers.

The TJC report did not endorse the particulars of the Virginia tuition grant program or make political recommendations – it only sought to study and quantify its effects from afar, and analyze them economically. Notably, the program was still exceedingly limited in its scope. Some counties had no student participants at all, and others numbered only in the dozens. Voucher use was particularly strong in the Hampton Roads region of the state where multiple jurisdictions in close geographic proximity presented parents with a broader assortment of choices.

The study also acknowledged that segregation persisted in both public and private schools, even though trends evinced growing use of the vouchers for non-segregationist purposes and by black students. Weighed against the alternatives though, the TJC report concluded that “it appears that the grants have been used increasingly to break down political bounds and to permit a wider choice of both public and private facilities.”

All of these findings stand in direct conflict with Nancy MacLean’s depiction of Buchanan in Democracy in Chains. While it is unclear if she knew about the 1964 report and omitted it, or simply missed it due to a careless accounting of the archives, it represents a substantial and complicating oversight in her project. It is difficult to read “massive resistance” or a Byrd-allied position into this report, undertaken with Buchanan’s direct oversight and input. By contrast, it is the public school teacher’s union – an entity that, like all unions, MacLean appears to view as sacrosanct – that actually struck a devil’s bargain with segregation, and did so in an explicit attempt to defeat vouchers.

In any case, the newly uncovered 1964 appendix only illustrates how far off base MacLean’s claims are in relation to Buchanan’s actual activities and positions. Far from aligning with the “massive resistors,” Buchanan’s position on segregation was consistently critical and his view of vouchers consistently held that they could be used to alleviate the ills of this institution. Democracy in Chains warrants a substantial correction by its publisher, if not outright retraction on account of its numerous and pervasive errors of historical fact.


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