The Crusade for Choice

Brother Bob Smith, the energetic young black principal of Messmer High School in Milwaukee, has called education vouchers "the next civil rights movement." An editorial in last year's USA Today made a similar statement, also. Despite fierce opposition from the education establishment, including the NEA, AFT, and academic elites, vouchers will indeed become the civil rights issue of our time. Not affirmative action. Not the L.A. riots. Not O.J. Simpson or Mr. Farrakhan. Not the church-burnings in the South.


schoolVouchers are the crown jewel of the school choice movement, which encompasses not only privately-funded scholarship programs but also public school choice and charter schools. As a whole, this movement is a worthy heir to the legacy of the civil rights movement because it shares many of that movement's fundamental qualities: it is a moral crusade reflecting a struggle between the individual and the state; it is propelled by charismatic leaders; it is politically explosive; and its fate will largely be determined by the courts (if not the NEA or AFT!).

The original civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was a moral crusade, drawing on great principles from the Bible and the Declaration of Independence- principles such as justice and equality.

So, too, with vouchers. They allow low-income families to send their children to the school of their choice- public or private, religious or secular. The imperative point is that American parents know better than the central computer in the local school district office as to what is right for their child. Vouchers are often targeted to poor families, especially those in crime-ridden inner cities who have no means of breaking the culture of poverty without a decent education. How can social justice and equality be realized in a country that doesn't allow its poorest citizens to obtain a high quality education? How can we call it "public education" when the public isn't given the fundamental freedom to determine the most appropriate education for its children (unless that "public" is wealthy enough to afford a private school)?

This is where the arrogance of the state collides with parental rights. We might expect a socialist society to assign children to state schools to receive a uniform "education" from a state-approved curriculum in a top-down, ineffective school system. But America should be a land of freedom and rational choice. Our education system should reflect those values and welcome experimentation and competition just like the effective private sector executes on a daily basis, all the while being held accountable for results.

Two generations ago, civil rights advocates tried with all their might to desegregate the schools, in part to promote racial integration but also to give all children an equal opportunity to a "good" education. Today, while many public schools fail our children miserably, we won't let poor children escape them. Grover Norquist has noted the irony:

In the old days, George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse doorway and told children they could not come in. Today, the foes of school choice stand in the doorway and say to the grandchildren of George Wallace's victims, "You cannot get out."

E.D. Hirsch, Jr., in his lucid new book, The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, observes that dilapidated, inner-city schools lead to an acute inequity in the distribution of "intellectual capital" among our nation's children, which "may be the single most important source of avoidable injustice in a free society." Hirsch views "intellectual capital" as a civil right-leverage not only for future academic achievement, economic productivity, and sound citizenship, but also for equality of opportunity and social justice.

Like the civil rights movement, which was propelled by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., the choice movement has its own brand of charismatic leadership. In Cleveland, a grassroots movement was led by Fannie Lewis, a black Democratic councilwoman who worked with key Republicans (such as Governor George Voinovich) to create the country's newest voucher program. And Polly Williams (a Democratic state legislator, former welfare recipient, and former campaign official for Jesse Jackson) led a grassroots parents' revolt in Milwaukee in the golden '80s that gave this country its first publicly-funded school voucher program in history. According to her, "parental choice is the difference between empowerment and enslavement."

What is intriguing about "the coalition that Polly built," to borrow a phrase from Terry Moe, is that it links poor and minority citizens with honest, conservative Republicans and the professional, efficient business community. Moe has called it a "political realignment in which the urban poor, joined by conservatives, do battle with their traditional liberal allies, who are committed to defending the existing system." Paul Steidler of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution has observed that school choice threatens to divide two major constituencies of the Democratic Party: blacks and the "all-mighty" teacher unions.

So, with all of its moral underpinnings, charismatic leadership, political battles, and courtroom dramas, the school choice movement is a natural and worthy heir to the original civil rights movement. Vouchers will boldly advance its principles by giving low-income American families more freedom, opportunity, and choices. Perhaps some day we will come to view school choice as a fundamental civil right in this country. Lamar Alexander said it well when he predicted, "The lack of school choice is the Berlin Wall of domestic social policy, and it's all going to come down."

Eric Seymour

Robert Schiener

Bryan Wilhelm

Bryant Lewis
Joel Corbin