The instant it appeared that Florida Governor Jeb Bush would succeed in pushing a
school voucher program through the state legislature this term the NAACP announced
that it would file suit to stop to it. The NAACP ticked off the standard arguments
that vouchers are a scheme by conservatives to obliterate public education, would
leave the poorest of poor students behind in even poorer and more racially isolated
schools, and would perpetuate the cycle of educational neglect. Yet in a national
survey 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 near whopping
90 percent of blacks aged 26 to 35, who are most likely to have children attending
public schools, want them the most.
The gaping gulf among blacks on 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 business 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.
So, when the mostly black Milwaukee public schools in 1990 became the first school
district in the nation to authorize 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 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 steppingstone
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 the Republican-backed
national school voucher program.
But black parents don't snatch at vouchers because of the racially and politically
stacked agendas of politicians and black militants. They are fed up with decaying,
crime-ridden schools, terrible teachers, and indifferent administrators. They 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.
The only thing they ask is whether vouchers will improve their children's education.
That answer is still pretty fuzzy. 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,
and there aren't enough children in the programs that do exist to tell whether they
work or not. Even in Milwaukee limited funds, accessibility and 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 fall back on such anecdotal homilies as "the parents love them"
or "the schools are getting better."
Even the doomsday predictions that vouchers bankrupt public schools, and further
squash achievement standards have so far been false fears. Milwaukee public schools
actually got a spending boost this year and reading scores increased. Ironically
that improvement almost certainly can be traced to the pressure, competition, and
the attention from the voucher controversy that forced teachers and administrators
to do a better job in the classroom.
While the arguments of black leaders against vouchers seem sound on paper, many black
parents will ignore them until public schools perform better. This means they must
have more funds, better texts, equipment, teacher training programs, huge increases
in cultural diversity programs, an expansion of charter and magnet schools, far greater
parental involvement in decision-making on curriculum, texts, and staffing. And most
importantly local school districts must institute a equitable system that permits
them of get rid of bad teachers and administrators.
It also means that many black leaders must face the hard fact that as long as
many inner-city public schools disgracefully underperform, black parents must have
the right to pick and choose the schools that offer the best deal in education for
their children. And for now that choice for many means vouchers.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black.
Tel: (213) 298-0266
Fax: (213) 291-6324