This article originally appeared in the Spring
Issue of Rethinking
Almost 45 years ago, Charles McDew helped found the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organization that left its mark
on history for its efforts to desegregate public facilities and
register black voters in the South.
McDew, SNCC’s chair from 1961 to 1964, remembers all too
well the heart-rending moments of the Civil Rights Movement – such
as in 1964 when he watched federal authorities pull the bodies
of murdered black men and boys from the bottom of the Natchez River
in Mississippi. His experience leaves him with little patience
for claims that taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools are
a new Civil Rights Movement.
“It’s absolute nonsense,” he
Rev. Graylan Hagler, who was active in the desegregation struggles
in Boston and is currently president of Ministers for Racial, Social,
and Economic Justice, understands the Northern variations of racism.
He too is dismayed at claims that vouchers will advance the civil
rights of African Americans.
“The [civil rights] battle has always been around public
schools, not around private academies,” he says.
Following desegregation initiatives in major
cities, Hagler explains, “you
saw an immediate drain of white participation from public education,
going into parochial and private schools. And ever since, they
have attempted to redirect public dollars out of public education
and into private schools.”
Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, D.C.’s
non-voting delegate to the House and a long-time civil rights
and feminist leader who
was the first woman to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,
responds with outrage at the suggestion that vouchers are a civil
“In this age of advertising, everybody appropriates the
language of the best and most universal themes,” she says. “The
use of the race card in order to promote vouchers hardly makes
for national recognition of vouchers as any new Civil Rights Movement.”
Norton is particularly galled by Republican Party tactics during
the congressional debate last fall over a federal voucher program
in Washington, D.C.
In the House, for example, the voucher measure
passed 209-208 because Republicans held the vote after anti-voucher
such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.),
and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) left to attend a presidential
candidates’ debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus.
(Cummings is head of the Black Caucus; 38 of its 39 members oppose
the D.C. voucher program.)
Invoking Civil Rights
Voucher supporters often say they are merely providing educational
options for low-income blacks and Latinos, particularly in urban
districts where the crisis in education is most acute. The rhetoric
serves a dual purpose. First, it obfuscates the true goals of the
key financial and political leaders of the voucher movement - universal
vouchers and the subsequent gutting of public education. Second,
it furthers the Republican strategy of driving a wedge between
people of color and the Democratic Party, which by and large has
argued that taxpayer dollars should go into public education and
not be diverted into private schools.
Civil rights rhetoric is often promoted by conservatives such
as columnist George Will and right-wing organizations such as the
Heritage Foundation. Not everyone takes seriously their attempts
to portray themselves as defenders of poor black children. But
several prominent African Americans also support vouchers. Among
them are former Democratic Rep. Floyd Flake of New York, former
Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, and Howard Fuller, former schools
superintendent in Milwaukee. An education advisor to George W.
Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign, Fuller is also chair
of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), founded in
2000 with strong backing from conservative foundations and philanthropists.
African-American voucher supporters often invoke
the language and imagery of the Civil Rights Movement. As Fuller
said in a keynote
address at a BAEO conference in Milwaukee in 2001, “Did we
sit down at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro,
N.C., February 1, 1960, to arrive at another lunch counter today
where we are welcome but we can’t read the menu?”
Schmoke, in a speech before the conservative
Manhattan Institute several years ago, called vouchers “part of an emerging new
civil rights battle for the millennium.” Flake, in a 1998
interview with the School Reform News, argued that vouchers are
an extension of the struggle that began with the Brown decision.
He went so far as to say that “public education is not a
civil right. What is a civil right is equal access to a quality
education for all, which was affirmed by Brown v. Board of Education
Roger Wilkins – whose many credentials include professor
of history at George Mason University, publisher of the NAACP’s
journal Crisis, former Washington Post journalist, assistant attorney
general during the Johnson administration, and former member of
the Board of Education in Washington, D.C. – says the fact
that some African Americans support vouchers doesn’t sway
“I think Fuller is wrong, and Floyd Flake is wrong,” Wilkins
says without equivocation. “Black people aren’t monolithic.
You asked me what I think. I think vouchers . . . are dead wrong
and destructive. Fundamentally, vouchers are using poor black kids
as pawns in a game that poor people will never win.”
While disappointed in African-American supporters
of vouchers, Wilkins focuses his ire on businessmen such as John
Wal-Mart heir who is a prime financier of voucher initiatives.
Such wealthy conservatives, Wilkins says, “are almost theologically
committed to privatizing almost everything. They just don’t
like public enterprise, or a public effort, except the U.S. Army.”
Wilkins also notes the irony that while one
of the main emphases of the Civil Rights Movement was economic
justice, wealthy backers
of vouchers are “exactly the people who bash the teachers’ unions
and are basically hostile to any workers’ movements, wherever
During the recent battle over vouchers in Washington, D.C., supporters
took their argument a step further. They not only portrayed vouchers
as a civil rights issue but compared opponents of vouchers to die-hard
One advertisement by a pro-voucher group, for
example, noted that “40
years ago politicians like George Wallace stood in the doors of
good schools trying to prevent poor black children from getting
in.” Another targeted long-time supporter of civil rights
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), comparing him to segregationist
Eugene “Bull” Connor, who used police dogs to attack
civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham in the 1960s.
One of the groups behind the ads, D.C. Parents
for School Choice, admits that it has received funding from conservative
as the Bradley Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. The
group declined to say who financed the ads this fall, saying only
it was “private donors.”
The voucher movement has shown a willingness to use whatever rhetoric
it finds useful. Looking beyond rhetoric, however, the analogy
between vouchers and the Civil Rights Movement fails on two basic
levels: the reality of existing voucher programs and the contrasting
ideology and goals of the voucher movement when compared to the
Civil Rights Movement.
The link between vouchers and civil rights
is more an assertion than a sustained argument. In essence, supporters
argue that vouchers
increase African Americans’ access to educational opportunity
and academic excellence and therefore are an extension of the Civil
There are three existing voucher programs in
the country – citywide
programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland that target low-income students
and a statewide program in Florida. But none of these programs
substantiate claims that vouchers have expanded educational opportunity
or academic excellence for African Americans.
In Milwaukee, the nation’s voucher laboratory,
the state is not currently collecting academic information from
Church/state considerations make it all but impossible to demand
the same accountability from private schools as public schools.
Recent headlines have focused on problems in the voucher schools.
One school, founded and run by a convicted rapist, has faced several
evictions and has not regularly paid its staff. Another school
reportedly did not even have books for the students and improperly
received $330,000 from the state for children who never attended
the school. At the same time its founder bought two Mercedez Benz
cars. A Milwaukee judge has since ordered the school closed, and
the children were relocated.
The monthly Community Brain-storming forum
is the black community’s
main political venue for discussion in Milwaukee. At last November’s
forum, Larry Harwell, who worked with Rep. Polly Williams (D-Milwaukee)
in 1990 to set up what was then a very limited voucher program,
sharply criticized the direction the voucher program had taken
and argued that the black community’s main focus should not
be on vouchers but on improving the Milwaukee Public Schools.
“The choice [voucher] schools need to be changed,” he
said. “Some of these schools are terrible.”
The November forum included the city’s African-American
legislators in the state Assembly and Senate. All criticized ongoing
attempts by Republicans to expand the voucher program beyond low-income
families attending schools in Milwaukee. They were especially critical
of the hypocrisy of pro-voucher suburban Republican legislators
pushing expansion. “These champions of school choice are
the same people who want to end four-year-old kindergarten,” Sen.
Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) noted. “You have to wonder what
the ultimate objective is for those [suburban legislators] who
say the only thing that is important is school choice.”
While the Milwaukee voucher program has increased
the number of African Americans in private schools, whites still
remain a majority
in the private schools. (Whites account for about 15 percent of
Milwaukee’s public school enrollment.) In addition, voucher
schools are even more segregated than public schools, according
to data from the Public Policy Forum in Milwaukee. More than half
the 107 voucher schools in 2002-03 were at least 90 percent non-white,
and almost a third enrolled only non-white students. At the same
time, five voucher schools enrolled more than 90 percent white
In Cleveland, meanwhile, vouchers disproportionately benefit white
students, according to a study of the program released in December.
While African Americans represent 71 percent of students in the
public schools, they account for only 52 percent of voucher students.
Whites represent just 20 percent of public school students but
34 percent of voucher students.
The study, conducted by the Indiana University
School of Education, also found that over four years there were
significant” differences in the academic achievement of voucher
students compared to students in the public schools.
In Florida, the state’s various voucher programs (which
include vouchers for students from “failing schools,” tax
credits for corporate-sponsored scholarships to private schools,
and vouchers for students with special needs) have been plagued
by mismanagement, lack of accounting for funds, and allegations
As the Palm Beach Post wrote in an editorial
December 22, “Apparently,
the chewing gum is too soft to stick, the baling wire is too flimsy
to hold, and nobody can find the duct tape. Education Commissioner
Jim Horne is having no luck with on-the-fly fixes to Florida’s
school voucher programs.”
In all three instances – Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida – vouchers
were promised as a sure-fire reform on the unproven assumptions
that private schools are inherently superior to public and that
competition sparked by vouchers will automatically lead to improved
public schools. In all three cases, the programs have been criticized
for lack of accountability and for a failure to substantiate gains
in academic achievement. And all have drained money away from public
education and diverted attention from other important reforms such
as teacher quality and adequate resources. In Milwaukee, for instance,
the voucher program cost $65 million last school year while the
public schools were forced to cut $48 million from their budget.
Clearly, the “vouchers as civil rights” rhetoric is
at odds with the reality of existing voucher programs. The rhetoric
also falls apart when one looks at the oft-stated goal of the movement’s
key financial, ideological, and political backers – providing
universal vouchers to all students. A universal voucher system
has nothing to do with improving opportunity for low-income students.
It would merely be a subsidy for more affluent families to help
pay private school tuition, and it would exacerbate the neglect
of the public schools that would still be educating the overwhelming
majority of low-income students.
Given the current politics and rhetoric surrounding
vouchers, most programs are targeted rather than universal – a “softening-up” strategy,
as it were. As a 1998 analysis for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman
Foundation stated, vouchers for low-income families are merely
a “beachhead” in “the long march to universal
Vouchers Roll Back Gains
Vouchers do more than undermine the viability of public education,
however. They also undermine hard-won civil rights gains.
Ever since the Brown decision, various popular
movements have upheld a vision of public schools as essential
to democracy and
have demanded legal protections for those previously marginalized – from
Title IX prohibitions against gender-based discrimination, to the
right to a bilingual education, to the inclusion of students with
disabilities in public school classrooms, to the demand that public
schools respect the rights of gay and lesbian students.
Vouchers set back all these advances.
Advocates for students with special needs are
particularly concerned that vouchers provide a way to circumvent
requirements that all
students – regardless of their physical, emotional, or mental
circumstances – receive a free and appropriate public education.
The reason is that voucher schools, by virtue of being considered “private” even
though they receive public dollars, do not have to provide the
same level of special education services as public schools nor
adhere to the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities
The situation is similar for bilingual students.
Gabriela Lemus is director of policy for the League of United
Latin American Citizens
(LULAC), the country’s oldest and largest Latino civil rights
organization, with 100,000 members in almost 40 states and Puerto
Rico. Lemus argues that vouchers “are a violation of the
Civil Rights Movement.” One of the reasons, she says, is
that “private schools don’t have to be sensitive to
the rights of those with limited English proficiency, or provide
Vouchers are also a threat to the civil rights
of gay and lesbian students. In Milwaukee, for example, voucher
schools do not have
to adhere to a state law that prohibits discrimination in public
schools on the basis of sexual orientation. And throughout the
country, many religious schools are teaching that homosexuality
is a “sin.”
Equally important, students that attend voucher schools are not
guaranteed their constitutional rights. By virtue of being private,
voucher schools can circumvent a host of constitutional protections,
from due process to free speech.
In a well-publicized case in 1995, a federal
judge in Milwaukee threw out a free speech claim by an African-American
the private University School who was suspended and asked not to
return the following fall because, during a presentation in her
English class, she had criticized the school for being “racist.”
In his opinion, Federal Judge Terence Evans
wrote that it “is
an elementary principle of constitutional law that the protections
afforded by the Bill of Rights do not apply to private actors such
as the University School. Generally, restrictions on constitutional
rights that would be protected at a public high school . . . need
not be honored at a private high school.”
It’s not surprising that there is a gaping
contradiction between the goals of the voucher movement and the
of African Americans.
The voucher movement traces directly back to
the work of economist Milton Friedman, who is perhaps most infamous
for his free-market
blueprints in the 1970s and 1980s for the Chilean dictatorship
of Augusto Pinochet. Ever since the 1950s, Friedman has advocated
for universal vouchers. The focus of education reform in the 1950s,
however, was on providing opportunity and equality within the public
schools, and Friedman’s ideas never won much popular support.
There was one group, however, which took up Friedman’s voucher
The first publicly funded school vouchers in
the United States were established in Virginia. Their purpose
was to circumvent the
Brown decision and to help white people attend private academies
so they wouldn’t have to go to public schools with blacks.
The Virginia vouchers and other “freedom of choice” plans
passed by Southern legislatures expressly sought to maintain segregated
McDew, the SNCC activist, has painful memories
of segregated schooling in the South, in particular the white “Christian academies.” Under
a voucher program, such academies would be able to receive public
dollars and would bolster attempts to further resegregate schools. “When
I think of vouchers,” McDew says, “I think mostly of
what it is going to do in the South. And that is, it’s going
to totally, totally resegregate the schools.”
The voucher laws in the South were eventually ruled unconstitutional.
But following the rightward drift of national politics in recent
decades and the growing influence of marketplace ideology, vouchers
were given new life in the 1980s and 1990s.
Tammy Johnson, a 34-year-old organizer with
Expose Racism and Advance School Excellence (ERASE), a national
in the Bay Area, says it’s impossible to overestimate the
effect of the right wing’s 25 years of relentlessly pushing
marketplace ideology and the view that public government services
are part of the problem, not the solution.
Johnson says the younger generation of blacks
and Latinos doesn’t
have the same emotional or ideological attachment to the Civil
Rights Movement. “You are dealing with generations that grew
up with [Ronald] Reagan,” she says. “They can’t
even envision what a civil rights victory is. And the voucher folks
are taking advantage of that.”
Bill Fletcher Jr., president of TransAfrica Forum in Washington,
D.C., and a long-time union and anti-racist activist, argues that
vouchers are part of a broader attempt to undermine the public
sector and substitute private, market-based solutions that will
inherently privilege those with more money.
“Vouchers are disingenuous, and I say disingenuous because
some of these people should know better,” Fletcher says. “There
are no examples of where the free market has addressed basic social
questions like public education or public transportation.”
Part of what makes it difficult to untangle
as civil rights” rhetoric is that conservatives mask their
attacks on the public sector in populist rhetoric. They also consciously
link “individual rights” to “civil rights,” thus
obscuring that the Civil Rights Movement was a broad-based, multi-issue
social movement demanding that the government follow through on
its responsibility to protect the rights of all. In contrast, conservatives
articulate a narrow, hyper-individualistic conception of equality
based on the right to be free, as the conservative Center for Individual
Rights puts it, from “a meddlesome, interest-group-infested
Supreme Court Decisions
It is enlightening to look at differences in
two decisive Supreme Court decisions involving education – the
1954 Brown decision and the 2002 Zelman decision, which upheld
of publicly funded vouchers to private religious schools.
The unanimous Brown decision struck a blow
not only for educational equality but also slashed at the entire
Jim Crow structure of “separate
but equal.” While historians differ about the specific influence
of Brown, there is little doubt it emerged from a larger struggle
against racism and is part of a Civil Rights Movement that targeted
not only school segregation but other edifices of white supremacy
such as the denial of the right to vote and blatant discrimination
in housing and jobs.
But the 5-4 Supreme Court decision that upheld vouchers revolves
around the separation of church and state. Nothing in the decision
limits vouchers to low-income students or links the legal issues
involved to the struggle against racism and for equal opportunity.
Interestingly, in the Brown decision Chief
Justice Earl Warren wrote that education “is perhaps the most important function
of state and local governments.” Vouchers, however, negate
that function and view education as little more than an issue of
At heart, the Civil Rights Movement was about
expanding the government’s
democratic commitment to protecting the rights of all. Vouchers
are about getting the government to walk away from that responsibility
and leaving everything to individual, private-sector solutions.
Wilkins says, “Vouchers give people this
illusory sense that somebody is trying to do something for poor
black kids. If
they really cared about poor black kids, they would roll up their
sleeves and help us fix our public schools.”
Barbara Miner (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is the former managing editor of Rethinking Schools.