Policy Documents

NAACP Lawsuit Challenges Vouchers

Nicole Garnett –
February 1, 1997

"It never ceases to amaze me," Justice Clarence Thomas has observed, "that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior." Ironically, the Milwaukee NAACP is now asking yet another court to endorse just that assumption.

The NAACP recently interjected itself into litigation involving Wisconsin's groundbreaking school choice program. Ninety-six percent of the students participating in the program are minorities. The Milwaukee Community Journal, the city's largest African-American newspaper, found that 90 percent of the black community supports the program.

The NAACP argues that the program violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Why would a program designed to benefit poor minority children represent "unequal protection?" The NAACP compares the voucher program to the earlier efforts of southern states to thumb their noses at desegregation by sending white kids to private schools. According to the NAACP, some of the parents participating in the voucher program choose to send their children to "virtually one-race schools," while "racially separate schools are inherently unequal."

Comparing today's predominantly black private schools to the segregation academies in the Jim Crow south insults the intelligence of minority parents across the nation. Inner-city private and religious schools provide a far superior education than their public alternatives. Only 35 percent of the freshmen who entered public high schools in Milwaukee in 1992, for example, graduated in four years. In one school, only 13 percent did so. Compare that abysmal record to that of two predominantly black private schools in Milwaukee: Messmer High School boasts a 98 percent graduation rate; the high school graduation rate for alumni of Urban Day, a K-8 independent school, is also 98 percent.

The success of predominantly black private schools is not the only irony of the NAACP's effort to thwart school choice. Many of the private and religious schools in inner-city Milwaukee are more integrated than their public counterparts, where less than 21 percent of the students are white. Vouchers will further integrate private schools by making them affordable for poor parents. While some black parents use their vouchers for schools that are mostly one race, many others will choose an integrated environment. School vouchers, therefore, would actually help advance the NAACP's goal of integrated education.

Apparently, however, the NAACP is more interested in curtailing poor parents' choices than in promoting integration. It not only wants to prohibit black parents from choosing predominantly black private schools for their kids, but it thinks that they cannot be trusted to select religious schools either. The NAACP's belittling attitude toward black parents is most glaring when it characterizes school choice as "compelled worship." After observing that most religious schools in Milwaukee are Roman Catholic and Lutheran and that most black parents are not, the NAACP concludes that permitting black parents to use vouchers in those schools is tantamount to compelling them to worship there.

This suggestion--that black parents need the state to protect them by limiting their ability to voluntarily expose their children to diverse religious traditions--is a slap in the face for the parents who would choose religious schools for their children. What these parents recognize, and what the NAACP ignores, is that these schools have long records of successfully educating minority students. Contrary to the NAACP's opinion, parents like Val Johnson (a Pentecostal Christian who has sacrificed to send all five of her children to Catholic school) have good reasons for wanting their children in religious schools. Ms. Johnson lists concerned teachers, discipline, and high academic standards among the reasons she selected Catholic schools for her children. Her kids' religious upbringing, she notes, is her prerogative.

The NAACP has a long and distinguished history of fighting for increased opportunities for minority school children. It should wholeheartedly endorse reform efforts like school choice, which empower poor minority parents by opening the doors of good schools to their children. Instead, it clings tenaciously to the status quo, claiming despite the abysmal failure of public schools that "African-Americans and other racial minorities especially benefit from implementation of uniformity of educational opportunity by a government official." In doing so, it abandons its legacy and the poor black children that it claims to represent.

Nicole Garnett is an attorney with the Washington, DC-based Institute for Justice.