LOS ANGELES - Community leaders from the African American community, the Latino community, the disability rights community, the Jewish community, and the civil rights community gathered today at the ACLU of Southern California to debunk the underlying premise of Proposition 38 - that it will help solve the problem of inequality in California schools.

Rev. Norman Johnson, Eve Hill, Hon. Antonio Villaraigosa, and Ramona Ripston at the press conference today

The ACLU of Southern California Department of Public Affairs also released an analysis of the geographic distribution of private and religious school seats in Los Angeles County that showed that the numbers of private school seats per capita are lower in areas with higher percentages of African-American residents, with higher percentages of Latino residents, and with lower per capita income.

"There's a gap between the resources offered to rich and to poor students and a gap between those provided to students of color and to white students," said Ramona Ripston, Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California. "But to close a gap you need a bridge, and Prop. 38 is no bridge. It simply presents us with another gap in a different sector and calls it a solution."

"The vast majority of private and religious schools - 78% in one survey - select only students who are performing at grade level or above," said Ripston. "That means that the students whose education has suffered the most in public schools are the very ones who don't stand a chance of leaving them."

In fact, a 1998 U.S. Department of Education survey of private schools revealed that only 15 to 31% of private schools surveyed would participate in a vouchers program if they were required to accept students with special needs, such as learning disabilities, limited English proficiency, or low achievement.

Other speakers raised questions about the real-life hurdles families will face when trying to access vouchers, including transportation costs, discrimination on the basis of academic preparation, discrimination on the basis of language ability, private schools' lower rates of participation in free or reduced-cost lunch programs, and discrimination based on ability to pay.

"Vouchers are not a reform movement or solution to the problems of public education," said Rev. James Lawson. "Black and brown children are not the ones who stand the most to gain from the passage of Proposition 38; it's the affluent children already in private schools."

"Here in California, we're beginning at last to realize that a multi-ethnic, multicultural society cannot pick and choose which children to value," said Speaker Emeritus Antonio Villaraigosa.

"A multicultural society cannot survive without building a common platform to launch our multitude of dreams."

The issue of equal access was also a concern of the disability rights community. Religious schools are exempt from the two pieces of federal civil rights education that guarantee students with disabilities access to a free and appropriate public education: the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. In addition, only around 9% of private and religious schools in Los Angeles County offer special education.

The community leaders who came together to address access issues at today's press conference included:

--Hon. Antonio Villaraigosa, Assemblymember of the 45th District, former Speaker of the California Assembly, and Board member of the ACLU of Southern California.

--Rev. James Lawson, former vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a Board member of the ACLU of Southern California. Rev. Lawson recently retired after 45 years as a minister.

--Rev. Norman Johnson, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Vice President of the Southern California Affiliate of the Congress of National Black Churches

--Eve Hill, Executive Director of the Western Law Center for Disability Rights

--Angela Sambrano, Central American Resource Center (CARECEN)

--Daniel Sokatch, Executive Director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance

--Ramona Ripston, Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California