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January 29, 2014 0

National School Choice Week Is Really About Vouchers

It is National School Choice Week (Jan­u­ary 26th – Feb­ru­ary 1st), which sup­port­ers tout as a time to “high­light a vari­ety of school choice options — from tra­di­tional pub­lic schools to pub­lic char­ter schools, mag­net schools, pri­vate schools, online learn­ing, and home­school­ing.”  But the school choice move­ment is pri­mar­ily about fun­nel­ing tax­payer dol­lars to pri­vate schools, includ­ing reli­gious schools, through school vouch­ers and tuition-tax cred­its, also known as neo-vouchers.

Voucher pro­po­nents are ask­ing Amer­i­cans to do some­thing con­trary to the very ideals upon which our nation was founded: to pay taxes to fund reli­gion.  Indeed, vouch­ers require Amer­i­cans of all faiths or no faith to allow their tax dol­lars to be used for the reli­gious indoc­tri­na­tion of chil­dren at schools with nar­row parochial agen­das.  In many pro­grams, 80 per­cent of vouch­ers are used at schools whose cen­tral mis­sion is reli­gious train­ing.  And in such schools, reli­gion per­me­ates the class­room, the lunch­room, even the foot­ball prac­tice field.  Chan­nel­ing pub­lic funds to these insti­tu­tions flies in the face of the con­sti­tu­tional man­date of sep­a­ra­tion of church and state.

Imple­men­ta­tion of voucher pro­grams also sends a clear mes­sage that we are giv­ing up on pub­lic edu­ca­tion.  Vouch­ers may help some stu­dents. But the genius of the Amer­i­can sys­tem of pub­lic edu­ca­tion is that it is for all chil­dren, regard­less of their reli­gion, their aca­d­e­mic tal­ents or their abil­ity to pay a fee.  This pol­icy of inclu­sive­ness has made pub­lic schools the back­bone of Amer­i­can democracy.

Con­trary to this pol­icy of inclu­sive­ness, most school voucher pro­grams allow par­tic­i­pat­ing pri­vate schools to dis­crim­i­nate in some form or another.  For instance, some pro­grams allow schools to reject appli­cants because of low aca­d­e­mic achieve­ment or dis­ci­pline prob­lems.  Other pro­grams per­mit par­tic­i­pat­ing schools to dis­crim­i­nate on the basis of dis­abil­ity, gen­der, reli­gion, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and/or gen­der iden­tity.  And some pri­vate schools pro­mote agen­das anti­thet­i­cal to the Amer­i­can ideal.

Pro­po­nents of vouch­ers argue that these pro­grams will allow poor stu­dents to attend good schools pre­vi­ously only avail­able to the mid­dle or upper classes.  But vouch­ers will do noth­ing for poor fam­i­lies who can­not make up the dif­fer­ent between the voucher amount – typ­i­cally around $5,000 – and the typ­i­cally high cost of pri­vate school tuition.

School vouch­ers under­mine two great Amer­i­can tra­di­tions: uni­ver­sal pub­lic edu­ca­tion and the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state.  Instead of embrac­ing vouch­ers, com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try should ded­i­cate them­selves to find­ing solu­tions that will be avail­able to every Amer­i­can school­child and that take into account the impor­tant legacy of the First Amendment.

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January 17, 2014 1

Momentous Times For Voting Rights

Every year Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. Day pro­vides a time to reflect on how far we have come in the quest for civil rights and how much more we have to do.  Two momen­tous devel­op­ments in vot­ing rights law give us rea­son to hope that 2014 will be a good year for ensur­ing that, nearly 50 years after the pas­sage of the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), all Amer­i­cans can exer­cise their fun­da­men­tal right to vote.

Yes­ter­day, mem­bers of Con­gress set aside their par­ti­san dif­fer­ences and intro­duced cru­cial new leg­is­la­tion to fix the gap­ing hole in the VRA cre­ated by the Supreme Court’s rul­ing last year in Shelby County v. Holdermlk-voting-rights-adlIn June the Supreme Court struck down the part of the law that deter­mined which states and local­i­ties with a his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing prac­tices would have to “pre-clear” their laws with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, essen­tially gut­ting the heart of the leg­is­la­tion.  In the 5–4 opin­ion Chief Jus­tice Roberts said that “Con­gress may draft another for­mula based on cur­rent conditions.” 

Con­gress heard that call.  The Vot­ing Rights Amend­ment Act of 2014 (H.R. 3899/S. 1945) cre­ates a new for­mula to deter­mine which juris­dic­tions must pre-clear their laws going for­ward.  It also strength­ens courts’ abil­i­ties to mon­i­tor local­i­ties that imple­ment dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing laws, makes it eas­ier for vot­ers to spot vot­ing rights vio­la­tions, and reduces hur­dles to fix­ing dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing laws.  The bill is not per­fect, but it pro­vides a very good start­ing point for ensur­ing that all Amer­i­cans will be able to make their voices heard in the demo­c­ra­tic process.  ADL looks for­ward to work­ing with mem­bers of Con­gress to strengthen the bill even fur­ther, and to pass­ing mean­ing­ful reform.

In another vic­tory for vot­ing rights, today a judge in Penn­syl­va­nia, in a case called Apple­white v. Com­mon­wealth of Penn­syl­va­nia, struck down the state’s law requir­ing vot­ers to show one of an enu­mer­ated list of government-issued photo iden­ti­fi­ca­tion to be able to vote.  Rec­og­niz­ing that “the over­whelm­ing evi­dence reflects that there are hun­dreds of thou­sands of qual­i­fied vot­ers who lack com­pli­ant ID,” and that “dis­en­fran­chis­ing vot­ers through no fault of the voter him­self is plainly uncon­sti­tu­tional,” the judge struck down the voter ID law.  He con­cluded that “vot­ing laws are designed to assure a free and fair elec­tion; the Voter ID Law does not fur­ther this goal.”  Stud­ies have con­sis­tently shown that voter ID laws, like the one struck down today in Penn­syl­va­nia, dis­pro­por­tion­ately impact minor­ity, low income, elderly, and young vot­ers.   Today’s rul­ing clears the way for more cit­i­zens to exer­cise their fun­da­men­tal right to vote.

Days before we cel­e­brate MLK Day we are heart­ened to know that Dr. King’s legacy of fight­ing for civil rights and equal­ity for all lives on.  Dr. King once famously said that “the arc of the moral uni­verse is long but it bends towards jus­tice.”  Over the last two days we have taken two steps for­ward on that arc, get­ting closer to a day when all Amer­i­cans will be able to exer­cise their right to vote, free of dis­crim­i­na­tory hurdles.

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January 14, 2014 0

Watershed Federal Guidance on School Discipline Seeks to Dismantle School-to-Prison Pipeline

Sus­pen­sions and expul­sions are among the best pre­dic­tors of which stu­dents will drop out of high school.  Stud­ies show that a stu­dent who has been sus­pended at least once is more than three times more likely to drop out of high school in the first two years than a stu­dent who has never been sus­pended.  A young adult who drops out of high school is more than 63 times more likely to become incar­cer­ated later in life than some­one who grad­u­ates from col­lege, feed­ing the pipeline from the school­house to the jail­house.

Last week the Depart­ment of Jus­tice and the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion jointly issued ground­break­ing guid­ance on school dis­ci­pline, tak­ing a cru­cial, pos­i­tive step toward dis­man­tling the “school-to-prison” pipeline.  As the Dear Col­league guid­ance noted, harsh school dis­ci­pline poli­cies dis­pro­por­tion­ately impact stu­dents of color, stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties, and LGBT stu­dents.  Recent data from the Civil Rights Data Col­lec­tion (CRDC), an impor­tant annual fed­eral school sur­vey wel­comed by the Anti-Defamation League, found that African-American stu­dents with­out dis­abil­i­ties are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be sus­pended or expelled from school.  Research sug­gests that these racial dis­par­i­ties can­not be explained by more fre­quent or more seri­ous mis­be­hav­ior by stu­dents of color.  To the con­trary, fed­eral inves­ti­ga­tions have found “cases where African-American stu­dents were dis­ci­plined more harshly and more fre­quently because of their race than sim­i­larly sit­u­ated white stu­dents.”  Other stud­ies con­firm that stu­dents of color tend to receive harsher pun­ish­ment for less seri­ous behav­ior, and are more often pun­ished for sub­jec­tive offenses, such as “loi­ter­ing” or “disrespect.”

Why are some stu­dents of color, stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties and LGBT stu­dents treated more harshly than their peers for sim­i­lar behav­ior? Some might sus­pect overt racism, but uncon­scious bias and latent prej­u­dice per­pe­trated unin­ten­tion­ally may often lead to harsher pun­ish­ments, even when teach­ers, admin­is­tra­tors, or school resource offi­cers are unaware of what is hap­pen­ing. Cur­rent research tells us that uncon­scious bias plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in our daily inter­ac­tions and under­stand­ing of daily occur­rences.  Poli­cies alone will not change that. The best pre­ven­tion is edu­ca­tion.  Bias is learned and can be unlearned. Cre­at­ing safe, inclu­sive schools requires edu­ca­tors, stu­dents, and the com­mu­ni­ties to under­stand what hap­pens when bias goes unchecked. We urge edu­ca­tors to uti­lize the Depart­ment of Education’s Guid­ing Prin­ci­ples of Reform to Improve School Cli­mate and Dis­ci­pline, which offers con­crete action steps nec­es­sary to sup­port the spirit of the new pol­icy. Among other help­ful rec­om­men­da­tions, the fed­eral Guid­ance urges schools to pro­vide com­pre­hen­sive train­ing for all school per­son­nel and law enforce­ment offi­cers sta­tioned in schools.

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