Friday, January 14, 2011

Standing in the schoolhouse door

Earlier this week, two state senators announced their intention to introduce legislation to offer state-funded school vouchers to low-income students. They framed their legislation as a civil rights issue, and one senator went so far as to suggest that opponents of the bill (like the ACLU of PA) are "like Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of a classroom to continue the segregation of the ‘60s."

It's true that access to a good education is a civil rights issue. Children in this country who aren't getting a quality education are almost always poor and often racial or ethnic minorities.

But the opponents of this school voucher plan have as much claim to the civil rights flag, if not more, than the proponents. The greatest amount of "choice" in "school choice" belongs to the private schools themselves. Private, religious schools can discriminate against kids and parents on the basis of race, ethnicity, disability, and gender.

In the late 1980s, a racial discrimination lawsuit was filed against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, claiming racial bias in the Philadelphia Catholic School system. A state court ruled that the school system of the archdiocese is exempt from the public accommodations provision of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, our non-discrimination law.

All private schools can discriminate against kids and families on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or familial or marital status because they are not protected classes in the PHRA.

Public schools, meanwhile, take everyone.

The ACLU of PA opposes this legislation because private schools discriminate and because it funnels state money to religious institutions. If the supporters of the bill want to have a discussion about civil rights, let's have that discussion.

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