NYT: "Why Blacks Support Vouchers"
- Subject: NYT: "Why Blacks Support Vouchers"
- From: Humes-Schulz <humes-schulz@ATTBI.COM>
- Date: Tue, 26 Feb 2002 14:53:37 -0800
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February 26, 2002
Why Blacks Support Vouchers
By MICHAEL LEO OWENS
TLANTA -- Urban black America favors school vouchers, but its leaders don't.
Vouchers transfer authority over the use of a portion of government
education funds from bureaucrats to parents, who then may use their grants
to send their children to the schools, secular or religious, they believe
will best educate their kids.
But we must be honest. If the Supreme Court rules in Zelman v.
Simmons-Harris that the Cleveland voucher program is constitutional, the
decision will help some families, but it will not expand the educational
opportunities of all black children. Even so, such a result is likely to
increase black support for vouchers. It will also show how far out of touch
the black governmental class is with its black constituency.
A 1999 survey by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research group, found that 68
percent of blacks favor vouchers. A similar poll by the Joint Center for
Political and Economic Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, showed that the
percentage of blacks supporting school vouchers rose to 60 percent in 1999
from 48 percent in 1996.
Support is particularly strong among people in my age group, those between
26 and 35. And support exists broadly among women and men, liberals and
conservatives, the poor and the prosperous.
The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found, however, that 69
percent of black federal, state and local elected officials do not support a
voucher plan like Cleveland's. They do not believe that public schools are
failing our children. Amazingly, almost three-fifths of black politicians
rate their local public schools as excellent or good, while by nearly the
same percentage other black adults rate their public schools as poor to
Why do I and other African Americans support vouchers over the advice of
black politicians? At the most basic level, we are desperate for decent
education for our children. And people in my generation and those younger
doubt the ability of black government leaders to influence public education
policies in ways that would benefit our children. Our support for vouchers
is essentially a critique of politicians' ineffectiveness.
In the post-civil rights era, the number of blacks sharing power and
responsibility for urban public education has grown dramatically. From 1977
to 1999, the number of black elected officials with influence over public
education in cities (mayors, council members, school board members and
superintendents) more than doubled, to 5,815 from 2,724.
Increased black representation in urban public education has had positive
symbolic effects. There are more black voices in local education
policymaking and more black teachers serving as role models. Nevertheless,
the substantive benefits of black electoral representation have been
limited. The educational achievement of black children and the overall
quality of urban public schools have failed to improve significantly.
Consider the case of Atlanta. Since 1973, the mayors and public school
superintendents of Atlanta have all been African American and its school
board has had black majorities. The city council likewise has had black
majorities for more than 20 years. In 2000, blacks made up 78 percent of the
Atlanta system's central office administrators, 95 percent of its school
principals and 82 percent of its teachers.
Unfortunately, black bureaucratic enfranchisement has yet to affect black
educational achievement. Test scores in the elementary schools in Atlanta's
black neighborhoods are substantially worse than scores in public schools
located in majority white neighborhoods.
This is very disheartening, for it suggests that even in a city of black
electoral empowerment and black wealth, black children have a tough time
learning and performing well. This is why so many black parents ignore the
counsel of black politicians on how to improve education.
My generation knows that vouchers have serious limitations. We recognize
that no voucher program can save a failing public system. Poorly funded
vouchers don't offer much of a chance for poor children to enroll in
expensive alternative schools. Vouchers can't ensure parental involvement in
education. And vouchers can't end the resistance of many suburban schools to
But they offer the only hope available to many poor students trapped in the
nation's worst schools. For a limited number of children, they may make a
crucial difference. That possibility is enough for black parents to take a
Michael Leo Owens is visiting assistant professor of political science at
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