Should Black Leaders Rethink School Vouchers?

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson


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.

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