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Black Ministers Jump in California School Voucher Battle

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The last day of the Democratic National Convention a small band of black ministers and community leaders staged what they billed as a Freedom Rally outside the Convention. They implored vice-president Al Gore to meet with them and back Proposition 38. This is the California ballot initiative bankrolled by multi-millionaire Silicon Valley wunderkind Tony Draper that shells out $4000 of public funds to any parent who wants to yank their kid from a public school and put them in private school. There were two huge problems with their demand. The first was that Gore flatly opposes vouchers. In his presidential candidacy acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention he said that he would not take a dime from public schools for vouchers. His running mate Joseph Lieberman who took much heat from black leaders for his pro-voucher vote in Congress backpedaled fast on the issue. In meetings with the Hispanic and Congressional Black Caucuses at the Convention he vowed to back increased funding for public schools. The even bigger problem is the initiative. It is a poorly conceived, terribly written measure that will drain an estimated $3 billion from already cash strapped public schools, impose no regulations on private schools, will not prohibit discrimination in student selection, set no professional standards for performance and accountability for teachers and administrators, and generates no new funds to pay for the voucher program. It will benefit only a handful of students while trapping thousands of poor, and minority students in schools that are poorer and more segregated. Also, the initiative will be closely watched by voucher supporters in other states. If it passes it will almost certainly clone similar initiative measures in other states and embolden legislators to push harder for vouchers in their state legislatures.

Yet despite the grave danger of Proposition 38, the black ministers who support the initiative are hardly lone black voices touting vouchers as an educational panacea. In a national survey the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank, found that a majority of black parents nationally back a voucher program. And a whopping 90 percent of blacks aged 26 to 35, who are most likely to have children attending public schools, want them the most. A California poll shows that more than fifty percent of minorities in the state back vouchers. This is higher than white support.

Many black and Latino parents are deeply dissatisfied with public schools and are desperate to put their children in 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. They would instantly snatch at vouchers if they were available.
But the question is if a sizable number of the mostly black and Latino students in urban public schools could attend private schools at taxpayer expense would it really improve their children's education? Voucher advocates and opponents toss around a few fuzzy studies 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, and there aren't enough children in the programs that do exist to tell whether they work or not. Voucher programs in Cleveland and Florida are presently hopelessly tied up in court suits. Voucher combatants then are forced to fall back on such anecdotal homilies as "the parents love them" or "the public schools are getting better."
While Proposition 38 would create much mischief with public education in California and similar voucher initiatives would do the same in other states, it doesn't mean that a voucher program is totally worthless. A voucher program might work if these provisions apply:

  • Students with learning disabilities who require specialized instruction unavailable in public schools are eligible.
  • Private schools that receive vouchers conform to state professional codes for teacher and administrator training, credentials, and evaluation.
  • No gender, racial or religious discrimination in eligible schools.
  • Students in schools that consistently fail to meet minimum state performance standards are eligible.
  • Funds for vouchers can only come from private or public supplemental funding sources and not the state's general education budget.
  • Tight income standards to guarantee that only truly needy students receive them.

Proposition 38 fits none of these provisions. But the harsh fact is that as long as heavily minority inner-city public schools disgracefully underperform, black and Latino parents will demand the right to pick and choose the schools that offer them the best deal in education for their children. The black ministers who pump Proposition 38 as an answer to failing public schools deliberately play hard on that need.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Disappearance of Black Leadership. email:ehutchi344@aol.com

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