Cracks developing in black resistance to school vouchers

June 04, 1999|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- An important crack has opened up in black America's once-impenetrable wall of resistance to school vouchers.

The eyebrow-raising split has developed in Miami between two of America's oldest and most prominent civil rights groups.

In a move that pokes gaping holes in the argument that publicly funded school vouchers are a racist plot, the Urban League of Greater Miami has retained a Washington law firm to intervene in court on behalf of a voucher plan passed by Florida lawmakers.

That puts the chapter on the opposite side of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group, which has vowed to sue to block the voucher plan.

It also puts the Miami Urban League chapter on the opposite side of its own national organization.

T. Willard Fair, the Miami chapter's president, refuses to knuckle under to talk that his chapter has betrayed the race. "We are not bound by color the way we used to be bound. Where people said, `You can't think that way because you're black,' " Mr. Fair said.

Actually, if it were up to grass roots, rank-and-file African-Americans, Mr. Fair apparently would find more friends than foes.

Backing vouchers

In fact, surveys show that the more we African-Americans learn about vouchers, the better we seem to like them.

Some of us, anyway.

The racial angle is important in the voucher debate because a disproportionate percentage of the nation's low-income parents who would take advantage of vouchers are poor, urban blacks and Latinos.

The Florida plan, which would go into effect in September, once the governor signs the legislation, would permit students from the lowest-rated public schools in the state to attend private schools, including religious schools, with $4,000 vouchers per child paid by taxpayers' money.

Voucher support has climbed so much among African-Americans that they are now more likely to support them than whites.

In a survey taken last year by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black-oriented Washington think tank, 48.1 percent of blacks favored the use of state money for private school tuition vouchers, while 39.8 percent opposed it. Whites, by contrast, opposed vouchers by a margin of 50.2 percent to 41.3 percent.

Economic differences

A closer look at black responses reveals a glaring gap along income lines. Poorer and less-educated blacks were more likely to support vouchers than their more affluent, well-educated counterparts.

Blacks with college degrees opposed vouchers by a 45.3 percent to 38.6 percent margin, while blacks with "some college" or other post-secondary vocational education favored vouchers by 58.7 to 41.3. Those with a high school education or less favored vouchers by 52.1 percent to 35.4 percent.

David Bositis, the Joint Center's research director, attributes the class gap to indications that better-educated blacks, like better-educated whites, tend to be more politically moderate and more satisfied with their public schools.

"Moderate people have the most misgivings about vouchers, which they see as a radical solution," he says. "People who are happy with their schools see vouchers as a challenge to the status quo -- a challenge that possibly could hurt their schools."

As a college-educated black parent whose son attends a fine, racially integrated, suburban public school, I have another theory: Low-income people are most concerned, for good reason, with helping their own children get the best education possible, while many of the rest of us are more concerned with helping all children get the best education possible.

I care not only about the few lucky kids who can escape bad schools with vouchers, but also about the kids who are left behind after their former classmates are spirited away, along with badly needed taxpayers' dollars.

That's why, like many other taxpayers, I have serious reservations about vouchers as the salvation of America's complex educational needs.

I would rather see Americans return to their ancient commitment to quality education for everyone, not just the most fortunate and resourceful families.

Anything short of that will only invite wider cracks in the wall.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/04/99

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