The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has long enjoyed a reputation among many people as a watchdog of freedom, but critics say the group is abandoning that role on school choice, a reform favored by many poor minority families trapped in failing public schools.
The ACLU is fighting Florida's school voucher plan, which allows children in poorly performing public schools to attend private schools using state-funded "opportunity scholarships." The group's lawsuit says vouchers paid for with taxpayer money could be used at private religious schools, which the ACLU believes violates the separation of church and state.
That's absurd, according to Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm based in Washington, D. C.
"[The ACLU's] logic would overturn the G. I. Bill, Pell Grants, day-care vouchers, private-school aid for disabled students, and even tax exemptions for religious institutions," Bolick recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal. Each of these programs, he noted, as well as the religious tax exemption, either put or leave money in religious coffers that would otherwise wind up performing other functions in the service of government.
Here in Michigan, the ACLU's state affiliate joined with school employee labor unions and other groups to denounce before the State Board of Canvassers a proposed 2000 school choice ballot initiative as an attempt to hurt students by taking away money from public schools.
"[The ACLU's] concern for public education budgets rings a bit hollow," says Matthew Berry, an Institute for Justice staff attorney. "The ACLU routinely files lawsuits against . . . school districts, soaking up money that could otherwise be spent on educating public school students."
The Michigan choice initiative, sponsored by Kids First! Yes!, seeks to remove the state's constitutional ban on K-12 vouchers and tax credits and establish a limited voucher plan in school districts that fail to graduate two-thirds of their students. Advocates say greater parental choice will give poorly performing public schools an incentive to improve.
"I disagree that the public schools are failing," Wendy Wagenheim, legislative affairs director for the Michigan ACLU, told MER. There are some bad schools, she noted, but the answer "is not to take money from the public schools and give it to religious ones."
Some civil rights leaders and many minorities do not share the ACLU's position on school choice. Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has called school choice the civil rights issue of the decade. Anita Nelam, a Detroit-based education reform activist, says that "school choice- a true civil right- provides us with a road map to the future."
Many parents who send their children to nonpublic schools note that it is simply unfair for them to pay twice for education: They see vouchers or tax credits as a matter of fairness.
A February Detroit Free Press poll of Detroit parents found that 43 percent cited "tuition cost" as the main reason they chose not to send their children to a nonpublic school.
"I'd love to send my children to private school, but I can't," Tonya Randall, a mother of two, told the Free Press. "The cost is stopping me."
Another exasperated mother told The Detroit News in 1997, "We in Detroit pay taxes to support education and then we take our children to private school and we pay all over again. Give us a break."
Wagenheim disagrees. "Double payment is fair," she told MER. "People who pay for a private security system for their home also have to pay taxes to support their local police. Parents who want to send their children to a private school also have to pay taxes to support public schools.
"I understand that the pace of reform has been very slow," Wagenheim added, but she emphasized that school choice was not the answer.
She acknowledged that limited school choice among public schools in Michigan has helped some schools improve, but reasserted the ACLU's opposition to expanded school choice.
"If you lit a fire under [public schools], great, that's terrific," Wagenheim said. "But we really hope the [Kids First! Yes!] ballot initiative is defeated."