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Educational Ripple Effects of Voter Disenfranchisement

I voted sticker.

Reflections on the AERA Annual Brown Lecture

The following post was written by NCTE staff member Lu Ann McNabb who works out of our DC office and attends events such as this one on behalf of the organization. 

Across the country, Americans are heading to the polls to determine their leaders in the Senate and the House. It’s easy to feel that national elections are disconnected to the work we do each day as educators. But, in reality, these elections will impact our classrooms from coast to coast.

Education policy influences everything from funding, college access, and curriculum to testing, accountability, teacher preparation, testing and assessment. So what happens when elected leaders do not understand or do not know what is best for students? At this year’s AERA Annual Brown Lecture, the specter of voter disenfranchisement was raised:  if students, parents, and grandparents are denied the right to vote, then their lack of a voice impacts classrooms from pre-K through graduate school.

Professor James D. Anderson delivered a riveting, yet sad, history of how the education of African Americans was tied to their ability to vote or, unfortunately, their disenfranchisement.  According to his explanation: During the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, African Americans, due to their majority or near-majority status and political clout in southern states, enjoyed educational equality with white children. “As long as African Americans participated as voters and office holders in southern state and local governments, their social and educational interests could not be easily ignored.”

However, at the turn of the century, southern legislators began to chip away at African Americans’ rights to vote. Citing Louis Harlan’s 1958 Separate and Unequal, Anderson said that “as Whites regained control of southern state and local governments in the late nineteenth century they halted the spread of public schools among Black children. Indeed, the post-emancipation educational reform movement, extending from 1863 to 1890, bred a counter reform movement that produced the greatest racial inequalities in education in southern history. During the first half of the twentieth century the dominant White South used state power to repress the development of Black public education, a process of repression so severe that it continued to affect the shape and character of educational opportunities for African American students throughout the twentieth century .”

Lecture attendee Donald Earl Collins wrote in his Notes from a Boy @ The Window blog, “Anderson wondered aloud that with the recent efforts to restrict voting and with the Supreme striking down Section 4(b) (and essentially Section 5) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 if this meant a return of gross educational inequality on the basis of race and class in 2014.”

The months ahead will show whether history repeats itself or whether we have learned our lesson.