Pro-Voucher Forces Test a New Message

Since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision upholding the Cleveland school voucher program (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris), the pro-voucher message has taken a noteworthy turn, increasingly equating the voucher ruling with the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education. As The New York Times recently noted, "[s]uch strategic use of language rarely occurs by chance."1 Indeed, voucher supporters are trying to lay claim to the mantle of the civil rights movement.

"This decision makes good on the promise made 50 years ago in Brown vs. Board of Education," proclaimed Clint Bolick of the pro-voucher Institute for Justice.2 Days after the Court upheld Cleveland's voucher program, President Bush applauded the ruling as "just as historic" as Brown.3 For a variety of reasons, however, these kinds of references do a disservice to the legacy of Brown.

First, the Brown decision advanced the principle of equal educational opportunity for all. By their very design, however, voucher programs do not serve all. In its amicus brief in the Zelman case, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) observed that Cleveland's voucher program affects relatively few children "while ignoring the desperate educational plight of the mass of African-American and other minority students for whose benefit Brown … was brought and litigated."4 While Brown sought to remove barriers, voucher programs erect new ones. Despite the mantra of parental "choice," real choice is illusory. Public schools accept all children, but private and religious schools can-and often do-reject students due to academic standing, disabilities, behavioral problems, religious affiliation or other factors. In fact, two years ago, a state audit of the Milwaukee voucher program found that only 8 percent of participating schools were providing special education services.5 Over a year after Florida had enacted a voucher program, 93 percent of its private schools declined to accept voucher students.6 Indeed, while voucher proponents claim they want to provide low-income parents with "choice," it is the private schools, not parents, who choose.

Second, Brown was a 9-0 decision that reflected a firm consensus on the Court. By contrast, the Zelman decision was the product of a deeply divided, 5-4 Court. In his Zelman dissent, Justice David Souter voiced hope "that the political branches will save us from the consequences of the majority's decision."7

Third, voucher supporters' aim to redirect tax dollars to private schools with little or no public oversight is strikingly at odds with Brown. In the '54 decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that education "is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments."8

Fourth, Brown struck an important blow against racial segregation in the public schools. While "white flight" and other factors have limited Brown's impact in many communities, the decision has served, nonetheless, as a clear affirmation of the nation's vision. But vouchers fail to advance this vision and may actually worsen segregation. The day before the Cleveland decision was announced, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University released an analysis of federal data, showing that private religious schools-more than 99 percent of Cleveland's voucher students attended sectarian schools in 2001-02-are more racially segregated than public schools.9

Referring to this desperate attempt by voucher advocates to compare their cause to the Brown decision, the NAACP's Supreme Court brief sums it up best: "This analogy is not merely manipulative and shallow; it is insulting to the thousands of courageous African-American parents and students who made this Court's Brown decision become a reality …"10

Not only have voucher supporters tried to portray themselves as the heirs to Brown, but some have vilified their opponents with outrageous rhetoric. Just before the Zelman decision, Arizona State University professor Marianne Jennings viciously attacked members of the Arizona Education Association, asserting that vouchers could improve education "if these racist teachers would let them rip."11 In a recent Fox News Web site commentary, Radley Balko claimed there were "a number of similarities" between the anti-voucher position of District of Columbia Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and the racist rants of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace.12

Demonizing more than 20,000 teachers or a Congressional delegate who has devoted her life to civil rights concerns is a deplorable tactic that diverts attention from the real issues much as vouchers divert tax dollars from public schools. Indeed, in the very first year of the Cleveland voucher program, budgetary pressures forced the Cleveland public schools to eliminate full-day kindergarten at all non-magnet schools.13 It's troubling enough when a program contributes to such consequences, but it stretches all bounds of credulity when the supporters of such a program tout themselves as defenders of poor, low-income children.

The civil rights movement has long dedicated itself to the plight of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. Yet the leading ultra-conservative backers of school vouchers make it clear that their motivation lies elsewhere. Even economist Milton Friedman, who first proposed school vouchers, has criticized voucher plans that limit participation to low-income kids.14 Friedman supports universal voucher programs that divert tax dollars to any family-regardless of their income-to pay for private-schooling. Joseph Bast, president of the right-wing Heartland Institute, also supports all-inclusive voucher programs, and he sees programs like Cleveland's as a way to get a foot in the door. "Pilot voucher programs for the urban poor will lead the way to statewide universal voucher plans," Bast predicted earlier this year.15 Other voucher advocates seem all too willing to write off many poor or minority children. William Rusher, columnist and former publisher of National Review, recently wrote that there are some "essentially ineducable youngsters in the ghetto, on whom vouchers would simply be wasted."16

The evidence is indisputable. Vouchers divert millions of tax dollars from public schools, give a small handful of families far less "choice" than they promise, and generously subsidize many families whose kids were never in public schools. The vast majority of children are left behind in struggling, financially squeezed public schools. This recipe is so profoundly at odds with the values that have long defined the civil rights movement.

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