Overturning Brown
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Overturning Brown

The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement

Title Details

Pages: 136

Illustrations: 51 b&w photos

Trim size: 5.500in x 8.000in



Pub Date: 02/04/2020

ISBN: 9-781-5883-8420-1

List Price: $25.95


NewSouth Books

Overturning Brown

The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement

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  • Description
  • Reviews
School choice, largely touted as a system that would ensure underprivileged youth have an equal opportunity in education, has grown in popularity in the past fifteen years. The rhetoric of school choice, however, resembles that of segregationists following Brown v. Board, who closed public schools and funded private institutions to block African American students from integrating with their white peers. In Overturning Brown, Steve Suitts examines the parallels between de facto segregationist policies and the modern school choice movement to expose the dangers lying behind the so-called civil rights policies of Betsy DeVos and the education privatization lobbies. Economic and educational disparity has expanded exponentially in the years following Brown v. Board, and post-Jim Crow discriminatory policies drive inequality and poverty today. It is only through recognizing the smoke and mirrors that Suitts deftly exposes in Overturning Brown that we understand the risk America’s underprivileged youth face with school voucher programs and as public funds are funneled into charter schools and predominately white and wealthy private schools.
Steve Suitts lifts the veil on the dirty little secret that undercut the intent and subsequent efforts to achieve meaningful school integration—that those of wealth, power, and political strength could benefit from loopholes and end-runs that feed on the instincts of people to resegregate by race and class. His explanations in Overturning Brown are instructive for present and future policymakers as they strive for genuine education equity and for parents and the public at large who need to understand what is at stake.

—Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees

It’s simply not possible after reading Overturning Brown to deny that private-school vouchers emerged from the primordial ooze of Jim Crow racism. Suitts provides a detailed and compelling critique of those deep-rooted connections between school choice and resistance to Brown. It’s all here, laid out in history from 50–60 years ago — those familiar voucher rationales of individual choice, beneficial competition, increased quality, freedom of association, and religious liberty — all offered as justification for the public funding of private segregation academies. We even see the rationale of better serving students with special needs, as well as the rhetorical tactic of branding vouchers as “scholarships.” The avowed bigots who dreamed up these facially race-neutral rationalizations soon lost most of their court battles, but they seem to be winning the war. While Jim Crow as a particular variety of racism is thankfully dead, prejudices around race and class are still awfully alive, as is the very real segregation of students in our public and private schools and the stratification of educational opportunities. Overturning Brown cautions us to remember that history and to be wary of stratifying policies wrapped in attractive rhetorical packages.

—Kevin Welner, professor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education and director of the National Education Policy Center

Steve Suitts gives us a powerful, succinct history of how public policy and public funds have been used to circumvent desegregation of the nation’s public schools. This book is a must-read for policymakers, educators, and members of the public who wish to understand how massive resistance to school desegregation in the 1950s and '60s in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education has morphed into today’s vouchers and charter school movements clothed in civil rights rhetoric. Without effective oversight by responsible federal agencies, so-called schools of choice will continue to deprive African American students and other students of color of real desegregated schools and equal educational opportunities.

—Judith A. Winston, former undersecretary and general counsel of the U.S. Department of Education

Steve Suitts’s succinct, incisive review of the rhetoric and objectives of the current school choice movement leaves no doubt that it is a direct descendant of the Old South Massive Resistance to desegregation. Those pushing these misguided policies hate to be reminded of their origins, but the history does not lie.

—Diane Ravitch, historian, New York University

Overturning Brown is perfectly timed to this dangerous moment when a misguided president and a malicious secretary of education are trying to impose a new era of racial inequality on American schools. Through his work at the ACLU and the Southern Regional Council, Steve Suitts has served for decades on the battlefront for progressive change in the South. No one can speak with greater authority about the dangers of Southern-style de facto segregation as a revitalized threat for the entire nation as well as the New South that Suitts has nurtured through a distinguished career as a writer, administrator, and public intellectual.

—Howell Raines, former executive editor of the New York Times, author of My Soul Is Rested

With painstaking research and a controlled but passionate pen, Steve Suitts brilliantly exposes the ties that link the current “school choice” movement with its segregationist origins. Advocates of charter schools and taxpayer vouchers use the language of social justice, but Overturning Brown documents the depressing reality: “School choice” has become the twenty-first-century version of the “freedom of choice” plans used by whites to subvert school desegregation efforts in the 1950s and '60s. It is also a sobering reminder that the struggle for racial and economic justice must be renewed with each succeeding generation.

—Dan Carter, Educational Foundation, professor emeritus, University of South Carolina

A powerful argument against the "virtual segregation" of schoolchildren enabled by vouchers, credits, and other instruments. As civil rights activist and attorney Steve Suitts convincingly demonstrates, Brown v. Board of Education barely put a dent in unequal public schooling. Indeed, writes the author, more than half of American states now use vouchers to support private schools with public funds, making it likely that inequality will continue for a long time to come.

—Kirkus Reviews

Steve Suitts's important new book, Overcoming Brown, shines a spotlight on the exodus of white middle-class families from our city schools to lily-white suburbs and private schools nationally, leaving urban school systems resegregated due to white flight after the forced busing of the 1960s and '70s. City exam schools and some charter schools further deplete urban schools of talent and racial diversity. By likening today's segregated school systems to the rise of white academies in the South post-Brown v. Board of Education, Suitts brings to light the scandalous divide of today's public schools education system.

—Katherine Scheidler, professor at Framingham State University, Massachusetts, author of Standards Matter

Suitts presents a damning portrait of the historic motivations behind school privatization. Teachers, policymakers, and progressive activists would do well to take heed.

—Publishers Weekly

In this slim but heavily researched volume, Suitts shows the parallels between the current school choice movement and the segregationists of the not-so-distant past. The echoes are striking, and perhaps not as well known as they should be… Segregation in public schools continues to be a problem; school choice has made it worse. Suitts's work reminds us that the language and policies of choice have lent themselves to enshrining segregation rather than fighting it.


A masterful, highly readable account of an American tragedy.


Overturning Brown is required reading for anyone interested in the current education debate and the history of public education in the United States.

—The Progressive

A frightening exposé, a passionate warning, and a much-needed call-to-arms for all those who are concerned about the current status of education in the United States. Suitts has both the credentials as well as the credibility to raise the alarm; we need to be paying attention. Highly recommended.

—Bowling Green Daily News

About the Author/Editor

STEVE SUITTS is an adjunct at the Institute for Liberal Arts of Emory University and has been chief strategist for Better Schools Better Jobs, a Mississippi-based education advocacy project of the New Venture Fund. Suitts began his career as a staff member of the Selma Project. He was founding director of the Alabama Civil Liberties Union; the executive director of the Southern Regional Council; and program coordinator, vice president, and senior fellow of the Southern Education Foundation. He is the author of Hugo Black of Alabama: How His Roots and Early Career Shaped the Great Champion of the Constitution and Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement. He was the executive producer and one of the writers of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a thirteen-hour public radio series that received a Peabody Award.