Many who are familiar with Brown v. Board of Education and the Southern response to the decision are at least vaguely aware that Southern states and school districts relied on school choice as one tool in their strategy of massive resistance. This Essay argues that Brown’s relationship to school choice, however, is more complicated, more long-lasting, and more important than this limited and familiar connection. It describes that relationship in more detail and explains why it is not only of historic interest, but of contemporary concern as well.
Brown, ironically and unintentionally, helped make the use of vouchers at religious schools constitutional. That is, Brown helped create the political and social conditions that made possible the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, upholding the use of vouchers at religious schools. The Court’s approval of vouchers, in turn, is helping to fuel a broader school-choice movement. While once a threat to the realization of Brown’s promise, school choice may now be one of the only ways to achieve integration. Whether school choice will successfully promote integration, however, depends to a large degree on whether the political legacy of Milliken v. Bradley—what this Essay calls “the suburban veto”—can be overcome.