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NEWS STORY: NAACP, People For launch campaign against school vouchers

c. 1997 Religion News Service BALTIMORE _ The NAACP and People For the American Way Thursday launched what they said will be a national campaign to fight school voucher initiatives that provide tax funds to aid parents of students attending private and religious schools.”In 1997, we find ourselves facing an issue which is in some […]

c. 1997 Religion News Service

BALTIMORE _ The NAACP and People For the American Way Thursday launched what they said will be a national campaign to fight school voucher initiatives that provide tax funds to aid parents of students attending private and religious schools.”In 1997, we find ourselves facing an issue which is in some ways the old familiar fight for fairness, but we must instead regard as a new fight demanding our vigorous attention,”Kweisi Mfume, NAACP president, told a group of more than 100 voucher critics who packed New Shiloh Baptist Church here for a day-long workshop Thursday (April 3) kicking of an anti-voucher campaign called”Partners for Public Education.”The attacks of the (political and religious) right on our children’s future have solidified around a concept of exclusion and selective opportunity called vouchers,”he added.

The use of vouchers to help parents offset the cost of sending their children to private schools, including religious schools, has become a high priority policy proposal by conservative groups such as the Christian Coalition, who believe that public schools are providing inadequate and, at times, immoral education.

Voucher proponents argue that poor families, looking for a way to get their children out of troubled public schools, need vouchers.

For example, in January, when the Christian Coalition unveiled its 1997 legislative agenda, dubbed the”Samaritan Project,”what it called”hope and opportunity scholarships”were near the top of the list.

Ralph Reed, the group’s executive director, called the proposal”a bold and compassionate agenda to combat poverty and restore hope.”Flanked by a handful of African-American and Latino clergy, Reed portrayed the agenda as a significant break with the coalition’s past _ a platform aimed at serving the needs of the poor and the interests of the minority community.

Critics, however, argue vouchers would divert dollars from already cash-strapped public schools, where they say most students will remain in even worse condition.

Additionally, the critics say the use of vouchers to support religious schools violates the separation of church and state provisions of the Constitution.

Voucher proposals are now pending before Congress and in more than two dozen state legislatures. Court challenges to voucher systems are under way in Ohio and Wisconsin.”We are determined to expose the hypocrisy of those who try to claim that vouchers would help poor children,”said Carole Shields, president of People For the American Way.”Vouchers are publicly funded scholarships for private and religious schools, and they deserve to be rejected,”Shields said.”We intend to put our energy into making education work not for a chosen few, but for all children.” The Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, dismissed the coalition’s Samaritan Project, saying what Reed called”bold”proposals were little more than the old agenda repackaged.

Shields agreed:”The stark truth is that the Christian Coalition has cynically repackaged its legislative agenda in an attempt to attract support from the very communities that its agenda would hurt.” Using”soft money”_ funds raised for political purposes but not subject to rules limiting campaign contributions _ and emotional appeals, backers of government-sponsored voucher programs have successfully made allies of some inner-city African-American clergy, voucher opponents conceded.

But opponents who gathered here to fight vouchers said the most powerful weapons they can use to win over African-American clergy and their constituents are education and”the truth.” The New Shiloh meeting drew parents, grandparents, students, educators, clergy and community activists not only from Maryland but as far away as California.

Organizers said it is the first of at least six such events that will be held across the nation this year.

McDonald, an outspoken veteran of the voucher war in Atlanta, said he came to share his story and help mobilize other clergy and activists.

There are”ministers who just don’t have the ammunition or the information they need to fight and address”the voucher issue, and some don’t even know what a voucher is, he said.

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Some black clergy are not only uniformed about vouchers, but are vulnerable to the tactics of the religious conservatives, said the Rev. Rolen Womack Jr., senior pastor of the Progressive Baptist Church in Milwaukee, Wis. Womack said he has had varying degrees of success organizing and educating fellow clergy in Milwaukee around vouchers.”The clergy have been silent on the issue of vouchers and public school education,”Womack said. But he said he suspects promises of financial aid from conservative groups, and new church schools and other facilities have silenced some black clergy in Milwaukee.”All social justice issues _ and that includes vouchers _ are the soft underbelly of the African-American church. The issues end up on the back burner,”said Womack.

McDonald warned that the conservative groups are waging a sophisticated, well-financed outreach campaign bolstered by the use of computers and e-mail.”When we educate our people and tell them the implication of vouchers and other legislation, they will see that they aren’t for the good of our children”he said.

MJP END HAWKINS