NAACP holds rally to protest school vouchers Proposal would disband public education, Mfume tells Baltimore gathering

April 04, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

More than 250 people turned out yesterday at a West Baltimore rally to oppose vouchers to allow public school students to attend private schools -- a proposal that rally sponsors said would lead to the dismantling of public education.

"We need to fight back against those who would disrupt and disband public education under the guise of creating school vouchers," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said during a speech that opened a day of political organizing and prayer at the New Shiloh Baptist Church at 2100 N. Monroe St.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was joined in the protest by People for the American Way, a liberal, nonprofit organization based in Washington.

Federal legislators have been debating whether to create a system of school vouchers that would allow public school students to attend private schools using public tax dollars. Experiments with "school choice" have begun in Milwaukee and Cleveland.

Last month, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, and Rep. J. C. Watts, an Oklahoma Republican, were among several lawmakers who proposed what they call the American Community Renewal Act of 1997, which would tie economic aid to urban areas to a requirement that local governments create school voucher programs.

Similar legislative proposals have been discussed in Maryland, but none has won much support. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke expressed support last year for the idea of school choice but did not pursue it.

The NAACP has been lobbying against vouchers, arguing that they would drain tax dollars from urban public schools and encourage segregation by making it easier for whites to flee integrated schools.

Carole Shields, president of the 300,000-member People for the American Way, said advocates of public education must rise against what she described as a well-organized attempt by the religious right to install religious schools in place of public schools.

"Why do we think vouchers are bad?" Shields asked the crowd. "Fairness. You can't just pluck some kids out of a school and give them more hope and more opportunity and leave the rest behind."

Supporters of school vouchers, including the Virginia-based Christian Coalition, argue that poor families should be allowed to select their schools the same way rich ones do.

"The government doesn't make people wear clothes they don't want to wear or eat food they don't want to eat," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a researcher at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank based in Indianapolis.

"But we have this curious bit of totalitarianism in this country for low- and moderate-income children in which we say the government gets to dictate which school they must attend. And that's not right," said Finn, who was an assistant U.S. secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan.

Pub Date: 4/04/97

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