Nationwide Campaign Targets Private School Vouchers

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Two leading civil rights and liberal advocacy groups joined forces last week to launch a nationwide campaign against private school vouchers.

The NAACP and People for the American Way said the alliance was necessary to battle what they called a threat that would damage public schools and divert tax money to private and religious schools.

The groups launched the effort with a daylong "community mobilization" late last week at a Baptist church in Baltimore, the home of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"Vouchers are a pernicious, steal-from-the-poor-and-give-to-the-rich scheme," Kweisi Mfume, the president of the NAACP, said in prepared remarks.

The NAACP has not, until now, made opposition to vouchers a national priority. But Mr. Mfume, a former Democratic congressman from Maryland who took over as the group's president last year, said the issue fits into in the organization's civil rights legacy.

"Education must be a fundamental guarantee for each child," he said. "Regrettably, the opposition is gathering strength."

Voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland allow children from low-income families to attend private schools at government expense. The Milwaukee program was launched in 1990 and currently is limited to nonreligious schools. The Cleveland program is in its first year and is providing aid to more than 1,900 children, most of whom attend religious schools.

Both programs are authorized by state legislation, which came about only through political coalitions of mostly white Republicans and low-income African-American parents in the two cities.

Last month, a black Democratic congressman, Rep. Floyd H. Flake of New York, signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill that would create a federal school voucher program in economically depressed areas. ("Black Congressman Backs Private School Voucher Measure," Mar. 19, 1997.)

Out of Touch?

The NAACP and People for the American Way say additional voucher proposals have been proposed or considered in 25 other states in recent years.

Carole Shields, the president of the Washington-based People for the American Way, called vouchers "a mean-spirited hoax."

"They are about taking resources from our public schools, and they are about politics--a naked grab for money by groups like the Christian Coalition," she said in prepared remarks.

The NAACP and PFAW, a civil liberties group that was established in 1980 by the television producer Norman Lear to counter the religious conservative movement, cited the Christian Coalition several times in its anti-voucher materials. But the coalition arguably has not been the most prominent advocate of school vouchers.

"I'm flattered" that the NAACP and PFAW cited the Christian Coalition, said Larry Cirignano, a spokesman for the Chesapeake, Va.-based group, which was founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

"But we're by no means the leaders or the only ones involved in advocating vouchers," he said. "I don't think the leadership of these organizations represents their constituents because poll after poll has shown that vouchers are supported by the American public."

In fact, surveys about private school vouchers have shown different results depending on how the questions are asked. But many poor urban residents have been enthusiastic about vouchers in the two cities experimenting with them.

Fannie Lewis, a black Cleveland city councilwoman who is working to open a private school to serve voucher recipients, said the NAACP is out of touch with African-Americans at the grassroots level on the voucher issue.

"Anyone who would talk about not allowing poor folks to have choice in education is not really concerned about helping poor people," she said.

But Ms. Shields of PFAW countered that under voucher proposals, private schools remain selective. "Only public schools take all the children," she said.

The groups said the Baltimore event was the first of at least six similar meetings to be held across the nation in the coming months.

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  • Visit the Partners for Public Education Web site from the NAACP and People for the American Way. It includes background information on current voucher plans, an introduction to the partnership, as well as letters from both organizations' leaders.

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