Civil Rights and Voucher Wrongs

An editorial memorandum by the People For the American Way Foundation

August 8, 2002

To:Education and Legal Affairs Reporters, Editors, and Columnists
From:Ralph G. Neas, President
People For the American Way Foundation
RE:Civil Rights and Voucher Wrongs


Since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its June 27 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, school voucher advocates have enthusiastically assessed their prospects for jump-starting a movement that has suffered numerous setbacks in recent years. But, try as they may, pro-voucher forces cannot deny two compelling points.

First, the U.S. Supreme Court's Zelman ruling isn't the last word on church-state issues. Dozens of states have written language into their constitutions that, in many cases, is far more explicit than the federal Establishment Clause in prohibiting public funds from being used to aid sectarian institutions. This fact was underscored by this week's Florida circuit court ruling that struck down the state's 1999 voucher law. (This ruling will be appealed, and the state's supreme court is expected to have the final word.) A number of state constitutions, like Florida's, prohibit public funds from being used "directly or indirectly" to aid sectarian institutions.

Second, what the U.S. Supreme Court found to be constitutionally sound is not educationally sound. Try as they may, voucher advocates cannot shake the critical and compelling facts-or, in some cases, the lack of such evidence-that undercut their arguments.

Perhaps for this reason, many voucher supporters are testing a new strategy. In recent months and especially since Zelman, pro-voucher groups have increasingly tried to hitch their wagon to a star-weaving 'civil rights' themes into their message in the hopes that this will resonate with the public and elected officials. Specifically, voucher backers are comparing the Cleveland ruling to the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

The attached issue brief, "Civil Rights and Voucher Wrongs," examines this new message strategy. This brief also takes a fresh look at other issues that are part of the voucher debate. This document is carefully footnoted and also includes Web links to several People For the American Way Foundation reports-three of which were cited in Justice David Souter's dissent in Zelman.

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