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Keeping Public Schools Public: Distorting the Civil Rights Legacy

By Barbara Miner

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 in 1954."

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 him.

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