The Education Divide

School vouchers were supposed to be a straight liberal vs. conservative issue. Why, then, are black urban Democrats jumping on the same bandwagon as the Christian Coalition?

Published September 30, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

thirty black ministers and educators from Detroit traveled to a Queens church early last month for a conversion ceremony of sorts. They had come to learn from the Rev. Floyd Flake how he had built the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church into a congregation of 9,000 that brought housing, businesses and quality education to a blighted neighborhood. Most of all, they had come to hear how the pastor -- a liberal, black, six-term Democratic New York congressman -- had embraced the cause of school vouchers.

Some in the delegation had been similarly persuaded on visits to Cleveland and Milwaukee, the only cities now using public funds to underwrite private-school tuition for poor children. The uncommitted still wondered why Flake would break with his party and the Congressional Black Caucus to cosponsor a voucher bill in Congress and champion a voucher program using private moneys in New York City.

"When a white person kills a black person, we all go out in the street to protest," Flake told his listeners, explaining his heresy. "But our children are being educationally killed everyday in public schools and nobody says a thing."

Those words, more than any Flake uttered, won over the skeptics. A day that began with one-third of the visitors favoring vouchers ended with three-quarters doing so. "It's hearing an African-American, nationally recognized Democrat speak for it in a way that made sense," recalled Anita Nelam, the chief development officer for an overwhelmingly black Quaker school in Detroit. "Nobody can doubt the reality of what he said. It was the truth. And anybody who's being honest has to admit that."

But at the same time Flake was seeking black hearts and minds on behalf of vouchers, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was campaigning against them. Working with the liberal lobbying group People for the American Way, the NAACP has been building a coalition of labor, education and ministerial groups dubbed Partners for Public Education. Vouchers, NAACP president Kweisi Mfume has contended, are "a concept of exclusion and selective opportunity" propounded by "the far right wing."

Today (Sept. 30), Partners for Public Education is holding a day of rallies and workshops in Philadelphia, one of its biggest anti-voucher events yet. In two weeks, Floyd Flake leaves his seat in Congress, a move that he says will "liberate" him to advocate even more strongly for vouchers.

The most important education debate of the fall, then, has been joined. And this time, it is taking place almost exclusively within the black community. Like the furor surrounding the Clarence Thomas nomination to the Supreme Court, the issue of vouchers promises to show just how diverse and divided black America is.

"There's a big debate that has to take place," says Diane Ravitch, author of numerous books on American education. "Black and Hispanic parents are desperate to save their children. And their patience for reforming public schools has run out. If you ask them if they'd want to send their kids to private school, you get an overwhelming yes. But not if you make it a choice between a liberal position versus a conservative position. There is still a tremendous suspicion of anything that's called vouchers, because it's associated with Republicans."

Black support for vouchers has risen nearly 10 points, to 57.3 percent, in the past year, according to a poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank devoted to black issues. Yet the poll also shows stark fissures within the black community. For instance, while 86.5 percent of blacks between the ages of 26 and 35 supported vouchers, only 19 percent of those older than 65 did so.

"For older blacks, there's a belief in the role of government, the federal government in particular, and an attachment to the Democratic Party," says David Bositis, who conducted the Joint Center's poll. "They believe the civil rights movement was a success. For younger people, it's not a question of whether the movement was a success or a failure. It's just not part of their consciousness. They weren't on the Edmund Pettus Bridge."

In 20 years as a pollster, Bositis says, no survey of his has generated more interest than the one on blacks and vouchers. He has been invited to address groups from the Rainbow Coalition to the Republican National Committee to the National School Boards Association. Julian Bond, a major figure in the civil rights movement now serving on the NAACP board, personally called for a briefing.

The issue has also given rise to some unprecedented political alliances. In Wisconsin in 1990, a black Democratic legislator from Milwaukee's North Side ghetto, Polly Williams, allied with the Republican governor, Tommy Thompson, to push through a pilot voucher program that provided about $3,000 a year for children from low-income households. In Cleveland several years later, Christian Coalition organizers worked in tandem with black parent-activists in the East Side slums to create a similar program. A pro-voucher group called TEACH-Michigan, typical of grass-roots organizations in other urban areas, assembled the delegation that visited Floyd Flake's church. And for the past three years, Republicans in Congress, with a small but increasing number of black allies like Flake, have tried to bring vouchers to the District of Columbia.

In each case, the class factor that liberals usually wield to keep blacks on their side was turned against them. "It's about giving poor people choices, the choices that people with money can make everyday," says Howard Fuller, a black man who served as superintendent of Milwaukee's public schools before becoming an education professor at Marquette University. "Bill Clinton can decide to send Chelsea to private school because he has the money. And then he says to poor parents in Washington -- who are stuck with the same schools he wouldn't send his daughter to -- that they have no way out."

A bill largely drafted by House Republicans, but influenced and cosponsored by Flake, would use federal funds for vouchers in 100 impoverished neighborhoods across the country. The provision is part of a broad array of tax cuts and regulatory reforms, under the rubric of the American Community Renewal Act, that together form a conservative agenda for reviving the inner city. The Clinton administration and the Congressional Black Caucus oppose the bill, but five of Flakes' black colleagues in Congress have endorsed it.

Meanwhile, privately funded voucher programs have sprung up in cities from Oakland, Calif., to Indianapolis to Albany, N.Y., each targeted to low-income children. Last spring, when New York's program was announced, 23,000 pupils applied for 1,300 grants. Each grant paid $1,400 annually, within $300 of the usual tuition at a Catholic elementary school.

These programs are more than isolated examples of philanthropy. They are the opening wedge of a political push to shift tax dollars from public schools to private, often parochial schools. For precisely that reason, teachers' unions and civil libertarians have already challenged the Milwaukee and Cleveland programs in court.

The arguments against vouchers go well beyond those of constitutional law. Opponents say the grants will skim the best students, and their share of state and local education money, from public schools that are already starved for resources. And, they maintain, once a voucher system is enacted, even if only for the poor, conservatives will seek to extend it to home schooling and sectarian academies favored by the Christian right.

"It's exploitative of the black community," says Mary Jean Collins, the national field director of People for the American Way. "The philosophy of the right is always, 'Give my kid what he wants and to hell with the rest.' For that attitude to get into the black community would be shameful."

Vouchers also threaten the economic stake that blacks hold in the public school system as a source of stable employment and a proven route into the middle class. The percentage of non-whites among America's public school teachers rose from 8 percent in 1990 to 11 percent in 1996, according to the National Center for Education Information, and 17 percent of college students expressing an interest in teaching are minorities. In the large cities most likely to be affected by vouchers, the numbers are even higher. Blacks and Hispanics constitute about one-quarter of New York's teaching and supervisory force.

Tuesday's event in Philadelphia, though, inadvertently underscores the difficulty of the NAACP's position. In a public school system that is 80 percent nonwhite, only six percent of high school students are reading competently, according to the New York Times. Three-quarters of blacks in Philadelphia already favor vouchers.

"The status quo is unacceptable, totally unacceptable," acknowledges Collins. "No matter who you think is responsible for it, it's got to be fixed. I would tell parents to mobilize and demand more resources and fix the system as it is. The only way out is a good public school system. Public education is still the last, best hope for these kids."

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

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