School Vouchers and the Vexing Nature of Democracy

By Fields, Cheryl D. | Black Issues in Higher Education, August 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

School Vouchers and the Vexing Nature of Democracy


Fields, Cheryl D., Black Issues in Higher Education


Democracy can be vexing. Especially when it takes society in directions you aren't sure will benefit all of the people. Sitting in the U.S. Supreme Court gallery earlier this year, during the hearing phase of the school vouchers case, Zelman v. Ohio, I couldn't help but appreciate the role democracy has played in creating opportunities for African Americans. I also couldn't help wondering what former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall would think about the role democracy is playing in the case of school vouchers.

Champions of school vouchers are quick to equate the Zelman case with the groundbreaking Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas school desegregation case, which Marshall and his legal team presented before the court in 1954. The goal of these two cases is superficially the same -- to provide equal educational opportunities for all students irrespective of race, ethnicity and/or socio-economic status. In this observer's mind, however, it is only the statement of that goal that is similar.

At its core, the Zelman case is about choice, an inherent principal of democracy. Ironically, it is choice that helped to create the situation that brought about Zelman. White folks' choice to pay for a private education or to move to the suburbs rather than have their children attend integrated public schools -- which, let us not forget, evolved because of the court's decision in Brown -- is in part why Cleveland's public schools are failing. Many of our nation's once de jure segregated systems have become de facto segregated systems thanks, in large part, to parental choice. Now, Black parents who can't afford to pay for private schools want to be able to use public money to opt out of public schools, too. It is all very democratic, yet, chilling.

Another disturbing aspect of the Zelman case is that none of the lawyers arguing in favor of vouchers was Black. One could argue that the race of the lawyers was irrelevant, especially since this case was not technically about race. But anyone who observed the media blitz that took place in advance of the hearings knows that African American parents played a major role in Zelman. Fed up with failing, urban public schools, it is these parents who pressed for an alternative. Tuning in to their tear-jerking testimonies, one was hard-pressed to view their pleas as anything but fair.

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