John McCain's remarks Wednesday to the NAACP that vouchers should be given to children in failing schools was met with resistance from one of the civil rights organization's leaders in Utah, where the nation's broadest voucher program was killed by voters with the help of the NAACP before it took effect.
"It would go back to the past (before) Brown v. Board of Education. There would be segregated schools," Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake branch, told The Associated Press by telephone from Cincinnati after McCain's speech there.
Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a McCain supporter, signed Utah's voucher program into law February 2007. It would have given parents between $500 and $3,000 per child, depending on income, to use on tuition at a private school. Unlike voucher programs in other states, even affluent families and those in high-performing school districts would have qualified.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People opposed the program because it feared Utah would end up resembling the South following desegregation, when vouchers were used in some states to send white children to expensive private schools.
"The ones that would not have been able to afford the schools would've been children of color," Williams said. "I still think it's a very bad idea to have a voucher program."
Generally, conservatives favor voucher programs while Democrats are opposed. But even in one of the nation's most conservative states, voters rebelled against the Republican-led Legislature and killed the voucher program by referendum with 62 percent of the vote. No vouchers had been issued.
Nationally, it was the 11th time since 1972 that vouchers or tuition tax credits were defeated in an election.
Judi Clark, executive director of the pro-voucher group Parents for Choice in Education, said segregation already exists and vouchers are a way to curb it, not expand it.
"I think their concerns are valid, and I think the scariest part of segregation is that we see that demonstrated in assigning children based on their physical address," she said. "There's already a difference between the education children are offered."
McCain told the NAACP that he will expand education opportunities, partly through vouchers for low-income children to attend private school.
"After decades of hearing the same big promises from the public education establishment, and seeing the same poor results, it is surely time to shake off old ways and to demand new reforms," McCain said. "That isn't just my opinion. It is the conviction of parents in poor neighborhoods across this nation who want better lives for their children."
The national voucher movement has largely been bankrolled by the Virginia-based political action committee All Children Matter. Its primary contributors are heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune and the founder of Amway.
The founder and CEO of Utah-based Overstock.com, Patrick Byrne, has also spent millions advocating voucher programs. Following the defeat of vouchers in Utah last year, he said he would try to push through a similar program in South Carolina by appealing to black church leaders.
Byrne, who has donated thousands of dollars to McCain, could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.