Blacks Support Vouchers
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
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
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.