There's been a flood of analysis on the left about the Supreme Court's repulsive decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. I was listening to a three-part series on Know Your Enemy, one of the better left podcasts out there now, and heard something I didn't know: school finance played a key role in the right's long march to legalize forced birth. I went down a rabbit hole and what I found is another good example of why school finance is so fascinating: it's a pressure point in the balance of American forces. In the Jenga game of our society, if you push on school finance--money for K-12 in particular--a lot of other pieces move.
The podcast hosts mention a long article in Politico by Randall Balmer, published in 2014, that traces the origins of the fight against abortion to a lawsuit filed in 1969. Coincidentally, the case also took place in Mississippi--but it had nothing to do with abortion. It was about the tax exempt status of whites-only 'Christian' schools opened to push back against desegregation.
The original case was called Green v. Kennedy. In 1969, the first year of desegregation in their school district, Black parents in the Holmes County watched as their white neighbors did a school strike to protest desegregation. These white parents were so passionate about their kids not sharing classrooms with Black children that they took their kids out of the public school and started private schools that were white-only. Balmer notes that "the number of white students enrolled in public schools in Holmes County dropped from 771 to 28; the following year, that number fell to zero." So the parents sued the Secretary of the Treasury, David Kennedy, for letting this happen.
The segregation academies were founded as non-profit entities. Under the 501(c)(3) law governing non-profits, the institutions themselves didn't have to pay taxes. But not only that, under Internal Revenue Code 170(c)(2), those donating to the foundations could deduct their donations from gross income tax. Basically, if you give money to these segregation academies then you didn't have to pay taxes on the income you used to pay them. The Black parents, as plaintiffs in Green, claimed these tax exemptions violated the Civil Rights Act of 1965. And when it came to school finance justice, they had the wind at their back.
The structure, wobbling
It was the early 1970s. Richard Nixon was president and was shaking in his boots at the prospect of Serrano v. Priest becoming the law of the land. The Supreme Court of California had decided in that case that local property taxation for public schools was unconstitutional and violated the Civil Rights Act as well. Nixon was terrified at this prospect. He actually went so far as to propose a value-added tax to federal fund local public schools. He wanted to pre-empt what he thought would be a near-revolutionary change to US racial capitalism. As part of that defensive maneuvering, before the courts ruled on Green, Nixon passed a change in IRS code that made it illegal for segregated private schools to be tax-exempt.
Nixon was right. In 1971, the courts found in favor of the Black parents in a new version of the case called Green v. Connally (which also upheld Nixon's IRS change). The tide was turning against white supremacy but also, we have to understand, the entire repressive edifice upholding white supremacy at the level of municipal government that was on the chopping block. Local control itself, policies going back to the mid-19th century, along with the whole nested series of real estate market policies inherited from the redlining days of the New Deal, were under attack. It was a big deal.
Bad anti-communists and tax expenditures
Before Brown v. Board of Education, white people paid property taxes that funded their public schools and public schools were segregated. Then Brown happened in 1954. You might wonder why it took until 1969, fifteen years later, for the first desegregation orders to reach Holmes County, Mississippi. White supremacists all over the country appealed the 1954 decision, flocking to the courts, and those orders were caught in the tangle of the repressive apparatuses for years. They did everything they could to block integration. It didn't help that US ruling classes weren't really interested in integrated schools. Brown was more of a publicity stunt to fight communism.
The US, as capitalist hegemon, was in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and one of the chief talking points communists used to undermine US legitimacy abroad was "the US says it's the home of the free, but they couldn't be free if they treat their minorities this way, look at what they do with their schools! They separate Black children from white and give the Black schools fewer resources!" Segregation was a bad look for capitalism, thus the Brown decision, but I doubt whether the ruling class at that point really wanted to integrate schools.
But the desegregation orders made it through anyway due to the force of the Civil Rights movement. Then the white supremacists actually had to integrate. It was a crossroads. The political economist of education Martin Carnoy once wrote that schools have a legitimate public claim to being the institutions that maintain the continuity of society. Everyone knows that schools prepare future generations. So imagine what it was like for white supremacists to integrate schools? It wasn't just about schools, it was the maintenance of their whole lifeworld over time.
After Brown, they'd have to pay for segregation: they'd have to pay property taxes and the tuition for their whites-only schools. They couldn't use their public dollars for segregation anymore. But they didn't want to pay extra, so they used the tax code to maintain segregation without losing money. Their segregated schools' tax exemption status meant that parents could pay tuition on top of property taxes and recover most of the money.
To put a finer point on it: from a libertarian perspective of taxation, exemption is expenditure. When the government decides not to tax what you have, you can kind of see it as the government giving you that money. So the racists found a way to get a tax expenditure for their segregation academies. I put it that way to show how tax exemption for segregated private schools was a material re-establishment of school segregation despite Brown: white parents could send their kids to white-only schools and the government was giving them money to do it.
Massage parlors and Christian schools
What does all this have to do with abortion? Think about it for a second: the Brown decision was mostly a stunt, a signal for international relations, not an actual rule people had to follow. The US ruling class told white parents "listen, we know you don't want to do this but we have to fight the commies, so let the Brown decision stand and we'll make sure you don't actually have to do it." Whites got used to this special treatment. It was fifteen years of segregated public schools while cases were on appeal; fifteen years of tax exempt private segregation academies; fifteen years of white parents getting the message "you don't have to integrate." It was a workaround to look like there'd been a paradigm shift when in fact there wasn't, and it held. There was a long period of time where white parents could game the system. The ruling class got what they wanted in the fight against communism and their constituencies got what they wanted with segregation. (And to be clear, this wasn't a 'southern' thing. It was everywhere: from Boston to Cleveland to Holmes County, MS. The Boston whites were particularly rabid.)
Then, to their collective horror, the Civil Rights movement successfully organized to uphold the Brown decision. Organizers pressured elected officials and judges to actually enforce this law. These civil rights organizers--many of whom were socialists--messed up the whole arrangement. The honeymoon was over. White parents actually had to send their kids to school with Black kids, signaling the end of their lifeworld. Specifically, civil rights lawyers had used a legal tactic to dismantle the strategy white supremacists found to maintain segregation under Brown: Green v. Kennedy took away the workaround. The power of the movement put white supremacists on the defensive, shattering the new-fangled front they'd put together to keep the ancien regime of segregation.
Defeated, white supremacists had to regroup. They asked themselves, "how do we get our way of life back?" There was now a constituency there, an interest group with a racialized character, as critical race theory founder Derrick Bell, Jr. put it. Enter Paul Weyrich, a conservative political activist. He'd started the Heritage Foundation and since World War 2 had been looking for ways to politically activate US evangelicals to advance the conservative agenda. If you could put that coalition together, conservatives would be unstoppable. As Balmer writes it, Weyrich "believed that the political possibilities of such a coalition were unlimited.” Weyrich wrote that the "results could well exceed our wildest dreams.”
The problem, Balmer says, is that the coalition hadn't been put together. It needed something to galvanize it and get evangelical Christians interested in being political. They needed an issue that would organize the churches into a political bloc, something to animate and unify them. And wouldn't you know it:
The Green v. Connally ruling provided a necessary first step: It captured the attention of evangelical leaders , especially as the IRS began sending questionnaires to church-related “segregation academies,” including [Jerry] Falwell’s own Lynchburg Christian School, inquiring about their racial policies. Falwell was furious. “In some states,” he famously complained, “It’s easier to open a massage parlor than a Christian school.”
I don't know what Falwell had against massage parlors but yeah, he was frustrated. Indeed, the repressive apparatuses--captured by white supremacist fractions of the ruling class for so long--was now sniffing out white supremacists and exerting its pressures on them, making them desegregate and, in the process, upending their lifeworld.
One famous case was the evangelical college Bob Jones University in South Carolina. The IRS asked if they had a policy of admitting African-Americans. The university had the opposite: they intentionally didn't let in AfAm students. They story is disgusting, featuring Bob Jones, Jr, the university's founder, saying publicly that the Bible mandates segregation. In any case, in 1976, the IRS rescinded the university's tax exempt status, prompting a flurry of appeals, including to the Supreme Court, who found in the IRS's favor. The nail was in the coffin. Or was it?
The Trojan Horse
Balmer calls the Bob Jones thing "the final straw." Evangelical leaders suddenly got interested in being political. Now that they felt the terrible breath of the machine of government, they wanted more control over it. They wanted influence in the courts; control in the halls of power. They wanted judges. They wanted elected officials. They were ready. They wanted it to be easier to open a segregated Christian school than a massage parlor. Weyrich was more than happy to facilitate.
The next problem was how to fight on the new terrain. They couldn't be open racists anymore. They were mad about school desegregation but to get their lifeworld back they couldn't talk about it openly. This new "moral majority" needed an issue that put them on the high ground. Roe v. Wade had just been passed in 1973. This made Christians mad too and there was a similar galvanization happening on that issue.
Weyrich put them together, realizing that abortion was the moral higher ground he'd been looking for. With the abortion issue out front and the school segregation providing the material glue inside the coalition, the pieces were all in place. Indeed, in a longer historical essay, Balmer--who was a student at an evangelical college and was present for the discussion--says Weyrich confirmed this story at a conference he attended:
Someone made passing reference to the standard narrative that the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 had served as the catalyst for the Religious Right. I tuned in. Weyrich forcefully disputed that assumption, recounting that ever since Barry Goldwater’s run for the presidency in 1964, he had been trying to enlist evangelicals in conservative political causes, but it was the tax exemption for religious schools that finally caught the attention of evangelical leaders. Abortion, he said, had nothing to do with it.
So it was tax exemption for religious schools that brought the evangelicals together. Abortion was just a convenient front issue, something they could all agree on to work together and fight for publicly, while the unspoken demand was school segregation, itself a synecdoche for their fallen white supremacist lifeworld. Abortion was the mask on the face of school segregation. It was the wood structure of the conservative Trojan Horse. The significance of all this can't be understated: school finance, specifically the policy for taxing private schools, was the deep issue behind the fight to overturn Roe. But that's not all: it was the key coalitional ingredient for the New Right itself. School finance was the glue holding together the groups that would amalgamate into the Moral Majority, which would elect Ronald Reagan, and wreak theocratic neoliberal havoc on the United States.