In response to:

The Dark History of School Choice from the January 14, 2021 issue

To the Editors:

In her insightful review essay “The Dark History of School Choice” [NYR, January 14], Diane Ravitch alludes to southern states in the 1950s and 1960s that “enacted voucher and tuition tax credit plans to subsidize white families fleeing integrating public schools.” Having been in a favorable position to witness the carnage, I write to amplify Ravitch’s insights at ground level.

In 1970 I became “field supervisor in secondary English” for the practice teaching of Miles College seniors. (Miles is a historically Black college in Fairfield, Alabama; my students were Black, I am not.) The high school districts we visited, north and west of Birmingham, were under court mandate to integrate enrollment. Up to half of their white students would transfer into formerly all-Black schools, and up to half the Black students into formerly all-white schools. My students, assigned randomly to formerly Black and formerly white schools, observed an experienced English teacher (their “mentor”) twice a week and taught the class once themselves. My role was to observe their teaching and then huddle with the mentor for a collaborative evaluation.

Ravitch would be surprised by nothing I saw. Every formerly all-Black school had remained almost entirely Black as white parents built Christian academies for their children and organized campaigns for tax relief. Severely under-enrolled, the public schools lost state funding proportionally and then local funding as whites voted down every proposed school levy. At these decaying, dispirited still-Black schools, my students and I did our work and left, barely noticed.

At the formerly all-white schools, white students remained a strong majority but bitterly resented having to share space with alien others. As public education was no longer “theirs”—their bastion, their Alabama, their America—they envied friends attending Christian academies and pressed their parents to sign them up too. The mere existence of “choice”—the still-segregated but conveniently religious alternative—stymied the effort to integrate school and society in Bull Connor’s backyard.

Inside the formerly all-white schools, my students and I attracted toxic attention wherever we went. Buzzing cafeterias and clattering hallways went ominously silent when we arrived; in class, white kids sneered, giggled, and shot hard stares. My students—among the first Blacks ever to teach white students in the Deep South—were oddities, and I just didn’t belong: a hippie outside agitator, likely a Communist, carrying a briefcase likelier full of bombs or dope than the notebooks and red pens of my trade. Often the white administrators made plain how unwelcome my students and I were. One principal (in Hueytown, I recall) snarled at a student teacher, “Girl, don’t you ever mention the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution in this school!”

My most serious problems were with mentor teachers, all white women. Often the review became a battle of wills barely constrained by professional courtesy. The teacher would proclaim unacceptable the work of, say, Cleavonne Singleton (my best practice teacher ever). Hauling out the district guidebook, she’d glare at Cleavonne, shake her head, and explain again “the way we’ve always done it down here.” Finally bidden to speak, Cleavonne would defend doing something in class besides grammar and pronunciation drills, some work with expression and ideas. This always evoked more glaring, some clucking, and more headshaking.

Then there always came the threat: “Professor Zorn, we know what works down here. Cleavonne is going to have to do it our way, or I won’t pass her practice teaching.” Incensed, I would define “your way” as school-site resegregation, isolating Black kids in low track and special ed without cause, just for speaking a recognizably Black dialect. The mentor then would lecture me huffily on what I was saying and how I was saying it.

At that point I would excuse ourselves, walk Cleavonne out to the hallway, and think it through: How badly do you want this credential? Where will you draw the line? We talked until we agreed, then went back in. Sometimes we apologized for getting agitated. Sometimes we cited research findings. Sometimes we gave strategic ground, and sometimes we dug our heels in and fought. Three times I threatened legal action, naming U.W. Clemon as the NAACP attorney in Birmingham ready to file for relief. Ravitch again would not be surprised: all three negotiations improved markedly after U.W. entered the conversation.

Jeff Zorn
Palm Springs, California