School-tuition vouchers buy trouble


WHEN I, of strong southern black Baptist upbringing, attended Catholic school for a year, I was subjected to sustained proselytizing, was required to study religion (guess which one) and to attend mass every Wednesday morning.

I did mind, but I was only a kid. However, I resisted the pressure and happily went back to public school. But that experience shaped forever my views on state-church relations: The constitutional separation must be upheld.

Even if church officials from all denominations swore on a Bible that they would not proselytize their young wards, the schools should never be financed by public funds, especially at the expense of the public school system.

Thus, I applauded the federal court ruling the other day that barred the city of Cleveland from providing vouchers that allowed students to attend parochial schools.

Judge Solomon Oliver Jr., said that the voucher system most likely violates the Constitution. Judges are so careful. I would have used less subtle language and declared that vouchers clearly, on their face, without question are unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court should sooner rather than later reaffirm its 1973 decision that New York violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment with a tuition-reimbursement program to enable low-income students to enroll in parochial schools.

The needs of poor, usually black, inner-city pupils have been used by some denominations to appeal for public funds for their ailing schools, a tactic I resent.

We sent our two boys to a private, nonsectarian elementary school in Washington, D.C. They graduated from public high schools in Chicago and New York. And we always paid taxes and made other contributions that supported public schools.

Voucher programs are a direct threat to public school education, that those who say their aim is to force public schools to be better and competitive are more than a little disingenuous.

Doing good for public schools is not their real concern. I do not expect that the outstanding private and parochial schools in Baltimore and other cities are waiting with open arms for students with vouchers in hand to show up.

But, my real concern goes beyond what happens to a few private and parochial schools in the North and elsewhere. I believe that right-wingers in the South want vouchers to be validated by the Supreme Court so they can further short-circuit public schools in places where segregated schools never disappeared.

Southern whites simply sidestepped integration orders by establishing systems of "segregation academies," whereby the former local white public school became the private "academy" reserved primarily for white children.

Many are sponsored by churches. A few take in above-average black students and black athletes, skimming from public schools in sufficient enough numbers to blunt charges of outright racism. Seg academies dot the landscape across the South.

In some places -- Demopolis, Ala., for example -- they are located across the street from the black public schools. They are a charade that over the decades slowly went from being an embarrassment to some whites to socially acceptable institutions.

Look closely and you'll find a few white students from very poor families remaining as minorities in overwhelmingly black public schools. These are the white families that could not get out.

Vouchers, if they were constitutional, would be the answer to these families' prayers. The public assistance would provide an escape route that would finally certify the complete return to segregation. And that would only lead to the compounding of the already serious racial and social antagonisms we now experience.

Paul Delaney is director of the Center for the Study of Race and Media at Howard University, Washington, D.C.

Pub Date: 9/06/99

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