Unconventional wisdom

Why Joe Lieberman is good for poor black children and parents.

By E.M. Brown
Published August 16, 2000 9:20PM (EDT)

"I am a lifelong Democrat, and I am not sure when the Democrats decided that siding with the poor and needy is no longer part of their platform. School choice empowers parents, and I don't care who is behind it, Democrats or Republicans."

--Virginia Walden, parent of a child in the District of Columbia as quoted in the Washington Post.

Just yesterday, Senator Joe Lieberman was called into a meeting of the Democratic National Committee's Black Caucus to pacify African-American leaders who disagree with his support for an experimental school voucher program in Washington. In the days since he became Al Gore's running mate, several commentators have speculated that Lieberman's nomination may alienate traditional Democratic constituencies, especially black voters. Because Lieberman is a moderate centrist, as opposed to a solid liberal, his critics believe that he is not fully on board with respect to certain core Democratic issues, including support for affirmative action and opposition to school vouchers.

They have it wrong.

To a voter who is black, poor and stuck in the inner city, Lieberman is the best leader to come out of the Democratic Party in years, regardless of the views of the Black Caucus. Why? Because by pushing for legislation to allow the experimental use of school vouchers in Washington, Lieberman has demonstrated a willingness to consider outside-of-the-box solutions to inner city poverty. He has shown that he believes that coming up with unpopular solutions to help the poor is worth the political risk.

Members of the Black Caucus have invested so much energy into trumpeting the virtues of public schooling and opposing school vouchers that it is reasonable for the average voter to assume that most blacks agree with them.

But this is inaccurate. There are few constituencies in this country more dissatisfied with public schools than blacks. In fact, according to a 1999 poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, less than 40 percent of blacks thought that their public schools were "good" or "excellent" compared with 59 percent of whites. That is a striking disparity.

Given their dissatisfaction with the current state of public schools, blacks are very likely to support school vouchers. A poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that 72 percent of blacks supported school vouchers, with the highest support among African-Americans in their twenties and thirties. Moreover, a study conducted in Milwaukee after the establishment of a school voucher program there suggests that low-income residents of the inner city are particularly likely to support school vouchers -- according to one poll, that figure stands at over 80 percent.

Some pundits counsel that we should wait patiently while educators and policymakers figure out ways to deliver more resources to children through better-trained teachers, after-school programs and improved facilities. But the time for patience has past. As Martin Luther King Jr. once reminded us, patience -- even well-intentioned patience -- in the face of injustice can be counterproductive.

Why are school vouchers so important to poor black people? Because black children are disproportionately likely to attend poorly performing schools. The particular school district that concerned Lieberman -- Washington's -- is particularly bad and overwhelmingly black. Indeed, more than half of the students in the city's public schools drop out after the 10th grade.

Bluntly stated, what could one possibly do with a 10th grade education from a poorly performing high school? Flip burgers in a minimum wage job for the next 50 years? For many of these children, that would be a positive outcome.

Make no mistake about it: These schools condemn poor black children to dead-end lives. This opinion was powerfully expressed by state legislator Annette Williams, a Milwaukee Democrat, in Dan McGroaty's book on school choice, "Break These Chains": "The system is the system ... The way I saw it, [it] is preparing our children for slavery. Look at the situation. Drop out by 10th grade, get into the street life. When you should be walking across the stage getting a diploma, you're standing in front of a judge wearing chains."

Private schools can change the difficult life prospects of low-income black children. In a seminal 1982 study, the late sociologist James Coleman found that private schools significantly close the achievement gap between blacks and whites and low-income and high-income students. He also found that parochial schools were particularly effective, a finding confirmed in more recent studies. According to economist Derek Neal's 1997 study, there was a substantial increase in the probability of graduation if an inner-city minority student moved from a public school to a Catholic school.

Some have written off the high levels of support for school vouchers among poor black parents as a mark of "desperation." But setting aside the condescension in that term, if I were a poor resident of the inner city, I would be desperate too. But these parents are not only desperate: They are rational. They recognize that we have yet to articulate any sound moral justification for why their children's futures should be condemned while we experiment with improving public schools.

As a black liberal, I wince every time I hear another black liberal attacking school vouchers. There is something singularly hollow and frankly embarrassing about privileged people pontificating on the virtues of a public secular education even as urban public school parents like Virginia Walden rush in hordes to private parochial schools. That few of us would ever choose to send our own children to these urban public schools only compounds the hypocrisy.

This is why Joe Lieberman is so important. In him, we have found the rare prominent Democrat who has displayed a willingness to extend to poor black children the benefits he would wish for his own children. It is a real pity that Democrats -- including the Black Caucus -- feel the need to silence him.

E.M. Brown

E.M. Brown is a fellow a the New America Foundation.


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