This is no Brown

July 05, 2002

IT TAKES SOMEONE like Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, someone who lived through and helped lead the struggle for racial equality, to properly explain just what Brown vs. Board of Education meant to this nation.

"Had there been no May 17, 1954," Mr. Lewis said recently, referring to the date on which the Supreme Court issued its unanimous opinion on school desegregation, "I'm not sure there would have been a Little Rock. I'm not sure there would have been a Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks, had it not been for May 17, 1954. It created an environment for us to push, for us to pull."

Think about that. Mr. Lewis is saying Brown helped lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement. It marked a sea change in American thinking -- from the codified inferiority for blacks that flowed from the court's decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson to an acknowledgment that, yes, all men are created equal. It was not just about education, but about societal parity.

So what's with the many conservatives, including President Bush, who are rushing to compare Brown's significance to that of last week's Supreme Court decision on school vouchers? The two aren't in the same class of court opinions -- not in their scope, not in their potential impact, and not in their moral importance.

The voucher case was decided by a narrow margin, on a fairly narrow question of law: whether school choice programs that include religious institutions pass constitutional muster. At its heart, that's not a particularly unfamiliar issue.

The court has had to decide many times whether public money could indirectly be used for religious purposes, and there are many examples in which that already happens. The voucher decision marks only a slight expansion of current practice, in that it sanctions limited church/state intermingling for educational purposes.

Perhaps more important, the court's voucher opinion is not an explicit endorsement of school choice programs the way Brown was a thundering cry for an end to segregation. The decision makes no statement about whether choice should or should not be pursued or whether vouchers actually deliver on all the educational goals they promise. It simply says choice programs are constitutional even if they include religious schools.

That's not to say the voucher decision is without importance or potential impact. It could (and should) lead to a much-needed national discussion about the merits of choice.

But sea change? A great moral victory? There was no such weighty issue at stake in the voucher case, so its effects cannot reverberate that widely or deeply across our society. It's a quarter-turn shift in the court's thinking, not a reversal that will help shape the country's moral character for decades to come.

Conservatives would do better to ensure the right questions get answered about the virtues and vices of school choice now that the court has ruled, because their political efforts to equate vouchers with desegregation are implausible folly at best.

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