Jac Wilder VerSteeg: Parallel between Selma, school vouchers is strained

In his commentary this week for Context Florida, the Rev. H.K. Matthews draws parallels between the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama and the current effort, including a march Rev. Matthews led, in support of Florida’s corporate tax credit scholarships – also known as school vouchers.

Rev. Matthews’ parallel is unseemly and insulting. It is unseemly because the push for school vouchers is not in the same league as the epic struggle for civil rights. In attempting to elevate the school-voucher movement, Rev. Matthews diminishes Selma.

It is insulting because, if his parallel is taken at face value, opponents of school vouchers such as myself are cast in a role parallel to the violent racists who attacked the Edmund Pettus marchers.

Rev. Matthews takes to task the Florida Education Association and the Florida School Boards Association for filing a lawsuit seeking to invalidate tax credit scholarships:

“When I heard about the lawsuit, I had another flashback to the old movement. The parallels were striking to me. Here were citizens demanding empowerment. A march symbolized that demand. And here were powerful groups trying to deny it.”

I think the Florida Legislature, governor and Cabinet – all voucher supporters – are more than a match for the “powerful groups” filing the lawsuit. I don’t think the Selma marchers enjoyed that kind of support from Alabama’s power structure.

Rev. Matthews recounts his civil rights credentials – “I participated in the first march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.”

Well, here are my civil rights credentials. I wasn’t at that march. I was 11 years old, attending an all-white school in a small Southern town. Blacks attended separate and unequal schools. I experienced federally-ordered integration. I saw white friends leave the newly integrated schools to attend all-white “Christian” schools. I saw fistfights between blacks and whites and, over time, I saw growing racial understanding.

The role public schools have played in that gradual enlightenment cannot be overstated. I view assaults on public schools as detrimental.

Rev. Matthews portrays vouchers as instruments of empowerment and choice. I will not present a full rebuttal. But I will say that the private voucher schools do not have to meet the same standards or give the same tests as public schools. Parents who are thrilled to see their children getting better grades in voucher schools might not know that the grades do not mean their child is learning more.

Most of the private schools accepting vouchers are religious schools. Public schools already offer many, many choice programs available to all students – without crossing that dangerous church-state barrier.

In his column, Rev. Matthews concludes, “I feel that those of us who marched across (the Edmund Pettus Bridge) prevailed in the end. Will these scholarship parents of little means prevail against those trying to take away their right to choose? Let’s pray that it be so.”

With the rise of charter schools and the large number of choice programs offered by school districts, the end of school vouchers for religious private schools hardly would mean that those parents are having their right to choose revoked.

I am happy to debate whether private voucher schools are constitutional and educationally sound. But I reject Rev. Matthews’ characterization of that debate, with civil rights crusaders on one side and bigots on the other.

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is editor of Context Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Jac VerSteeg


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