THE STORIED ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE, one of the nation's oldest civil-rights organizations, is fervent -- very fervent -- about the separation of church and state. It devotes an elaborate page to the subject on its web site. It files friend-of-the-court briefs when church/state issues come before the federal or state judiciary. Whether the controversy is over school prayer, religious displays in public, or the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, ADL argues with much passion for keeping the "wall of separation" between government and religion as high and impenetrable as possible. "The more government and religion become entangled," it has often warned, "the more threatening the environment becomes for each."
No surprise, then, that ADL takes a hard line against school-choice voucher programs, which give parents the wherewithal to rescue their children from failing public schools and enroll them in private schools instead. Since those private schools are often church-affiliated, ADL contended in an amicus brief the last time the Supreme Court took up the issue, vouchers have the unconstitutional effect of directing "government funding to religious schools for religious purposes."
That case was Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, a landmark decided in 2002, in which the Supreme Court disagreed with ADL. As long as vouchers enable parents to "exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious," the majority ruled, nothing about them offends the Constitution.
But ADL's opposition hasn't softened. When the Senate was poised earlier this year to vote on funding school vouchers for the District of Columbia, ADL signed a letter calling for the program be killed. "Instead of sending federal money to private schools," it urged, "money should instead be invested in the public schools." In a five-part essay posted online, ADL claims that "vouchers pose a serious threat to values that are vital to the health of American democracy" and "threaten to undermine our system of public education."
Needless to say, the ADL position, widely shared on the left, has plenty of critics on the right, including your humble servant. From the conservative editorialists at The Wall Street Journal to the libertarian litigators at the Institute for Justice, supporters of vouchers have frequently excoriated those who oppose them -- especially teachers unions and the politicians who genuflect to them -- for their willingness to keep poor kids trapped in wretched schools.
But while there may be nothing extraordinary about conservatives or libertarians embracing school choice, it takes real grit for liberals or Democrats do so. Especially when they do so from within ADL.
Three months ago, the executive committee of ADL's Philadelphia chapter voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution endorsing vouchers. Now it is urging the entire organization to follow suit.
"We believe school choice to be an urgent civil rights issue," the committee argued in a brief being circulated among ADL's 30 regional offices. Despite decades of increased spending on K-12 education, "the evidence that our public education system is failing to educate our children is staggering." ADL should reverse its longtime position "as a moral imperative," the Philadelphia leadership urges, and "issue a resolution in favor of school choice."
Pennsylvania State Senator Anthony Williams, bucking the teachers unions, is an outspoken champion of vouchers.
"Anybody who was for Brown v. Board of Education -- it baffles me that they would be against vouchers," Williams told me last week. "Brown condemned schools that were separate and unequal. Well, that's exactly what we're back to now -- schools that are segregated by income, by ZIP Code, by race."
Of the 20,000 children who annually enter Philadelphia kindergartens, Williams notes, almost half will drop out before finishing high school -- and fewer than 2,000 will go to college. The way to fix the dreadful public schools that produce these results isn't to shower them with more money, he says. It is to empower parents to pull their kids out and enroll them in better schools elsewhere.
Williams may not win Tuesday's primary. Philly's ADL chapter may not persuade the national board to follow its lead. But in swimming against the tide, both have set examples that will inspire others. Educational inequality persists. But thanks to some gutsy Philadelphia liberals, it has just lost a little more ground.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
June 14, 2010 update: The ADL's national leadership announced today that it has "rejected a proposal to change its long-standing opposition to school vouchers," even though it acknowledged that "the current system . . . is failing to educate the nation's youth, particularly minority youth." Its rejection of the Philadelphia initiative was for the usual (spurious) reason: "Voucher programs violate the separation of church and state by channeling taxpayer dollars to parochial schools."