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When Blacks Support Vouchers

In an impassioned opinion backing the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority ruling endorsing school vouchers, Clarence Thomas called vouchers the path to educational emancipation for poor and minority parents. Thomas drove his point home by evoking the revered name of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Thomas’ over-the-top comparison of vouchers to the titanic anti-slavery battle drew the ire of established civil rights groups. They have been virtually unanimous in condemning vouchers. But many black parents agree with Thomas. They regard vouchers as their children’s ticket out of miserably failing public schools.

The massive chasm among blacks on public education is yet another example of how mainstream black leaders often march to a far different tune than poor and working-class blacks. These leaders are mostly liberal, middle-class businesspeople and professionals. Their kids are safely nestled in private schools and escape the ravages of bad public schools. Poor and working-class blacks have no such luxury.

In a national survey in 2000, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black Washington, D.C., think tank, found that a majority of black parents want vouchers, and a whopping 90 percent of younger blacks want them the most. They are the ones who are the most likely to have children attending public schools.

The gaping divide among blacks on vouchers first publicly exploded in Milwaukee. In 1990, when the mostly black and failing Milwaukee public schools authorized vouchers for private schools, the stampede by black parents to grab the money and dash their children into private or parochial schools was so great that school officials had to have a lottery to decide who received a voucher. To the shock of black leaders, many black activists, instead of denouncing vouchers as a right-wing threat to public schools, denounced black leaders for opposing them.

The activists saw vouchers as a weapon against an insensitive, stagnant, often racist educational bureaucracy that systematically victimizes black children, and as a stepping-stone toward community empowerment. The pro-voucher sentiment among many blacks is so strong that several black congressional Democrats have broken ranks with the NAACP, Urban League and their own congressional black caucus to publicly support President Bush’s much touted federal school-voucher program, even if that includes doling out public monies to religious schools. In California in 2000, some black ministers and community leaders were among the most vocal supporters of a statewide initiative to institute vouchers. Voters decisively defeated the initiative.

Many black parents don’t scream for vouchers to rebel against civil rights leaders, because they are sudden converts to Bush and Republican politics, or because they want to wreck public education. They are simply fed up with the decaying, crime-ridden schools, with terrible teachers and indifferent administrators, that their students are dumped into. Reading and math test scores in the Cleveland schools, for instance, have chronically wallowed among the lowest in the nation. The parents who cheered the Court’s decision are desperate to put their children into schools that teach them how to read, write, spell, add and subtract. They want their sons and daughters to have a decent chance at a career or profession and not become prison fodder or candidates for early graves. They want and demand the right to pick and choose the schools that offer the best deal in education for their children. While no one should quibble over their right to make that choice, the question is, are vouchers the best choice to improve their children’s education?

Despite the Court’s decision, the jury is way out on that question. Conservatives and black leaders trot out a handful of studies and experts to prove that vouchers are a smashing success or abject failure. But neither side has mustered a convincing case for or against them, mostly because voucher programs are still not widespread enough in school districts nationally. No cities other than Milwaukee and Cleveland offer vouchers, and Florida is the only state that offers them. And there aren’t enough children in their programs to tell whether they work or not.

Even in the Milwaukee schools, which have had the longest-running school voucher program, limited funds, and a shortage of classroom space in private schools, enable only a tiny percentage of the school district’s low-income students to use vouchers to attend private schools. The best that the voucher combatants can do is parrot anecdotal homilies such as “the parents love them” or “the schools are getting better.”

Civil rights leaders will continue to plead with black parents that tax dollars for vouchers subsidize religious schools, leave the poorest of poor students behind in even poorer and more racially isolated schools that further perpetuate the cycle of educational neglect, and are a scheme by conservatives to torpedo public education. Their pleas will fall on deaf ears until public schools educate poor black kids the same way they educate kids in the suburbs.

—Earl Ofari Hutchinson

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