School Vouchers: A Wedge Issue for African Americans?Thanks to President George W. Bush’s early morning arm-twisting and a blatant Republican disregard for Congressional rules (with a 15-minute vote taking more than three hours while Republican leadership pressured dissenting members of Congress to change their vote) we have a new Medicare system that may either cut drug bills in half or push more senior citizens into bankruptcy. While those political maneuverings garnered headlines, another initiative to use taxpayer dollars for a school voucher experiment in Washington, D.C., was relegated to the sidelines.
To be sure, the D.C. initiative remained on the table as Congress recessed for Thanksgiving. Still, most expect the $13 million initiative, which will provide taxpayer-supported grants of up to $7,500 to at least 1,700 low-income D.C. students, to pass. It is part of a $328 million federal appropriation to the District, and it has become a hotly debated matter among D.C. politicians, with the mayor and head of the school board supporting vouchers, and D.C. Congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton opposing them.The dialogue among urban parents around the nation about vouchers is at least as interesting as the conversation among politicians. Many African Americans support public education and the adequate funding of public schools. But parents who have to deal with low-quality public schools greet voucher programs with the same enthusiasm that someone burning in hellfire greets a cup of ice. Worn out by their battles to improve public schools, frustrated by school bureaucracies that seem nonresponsive, and unwilling to keep their children in environments where they can’t learn, some activist parents have embraced alternatives — charter schools, vouchers and privatization — as a salvation for their children.From where I sit, the public schools have never been adequately funded and when they are, some of the issues related to their quality will abate. I also feel that vouchers and charter schools do a fair amount of “creaming,” providing options to the most activist parents and leaving many parents and children behind. I support public schools, but I understand why so many parents are open to the notion of vouchers. And I suspect that the voucher issue is a wedge issue for African Americans, especially from a generational perspective.Some studies indicate that African Americans under age 35 are more likely to support vouchers than those who are older. It makes sense. Many under 35 have children and direct contact with the public schools. Some policy analysts, like myself, have neither chick nor child, and are dealing solely with educational theory. The response from young parents — “public schools should be strengthened in the long run, but in the short run I have to educate my child.” Still, those who are open to vouchers need to understand the political underpinnings of a Congressional decision to use the District of Columbia as a national experiment. They also need to wonder whether there are enough private school slots to absorb those public-school children who will theoretically be fleeing to those private schools. Will the private schools be allowed to discriminate among those it chooses to accept? If they are religious schools, whatever happened to the separation between church and state? What impact do voucher systems have on the social and economic stratification that is already so pronounced in our society? Are there other equity considerations?
It is no coincidence that an administration that favors vouchers also favors the privatization of Social Security, Medicare and other social programs. From a Republican perspective, privatization means more competition and competition theoretically means efficiency. I suppose that Tyco and Enron were efficiently competing when their executives ripped off millions of dollars and disadvantaged thousands of their employees.From a Democratic perspective, in contrast, government’s job is to provide a range of services as efficiently as possible. Theoretically, government should provide good schools for all children. But because public education is often locally administered and funded, there are wide variations in the quality of public education, with suburban schools much better funded than inner-city schools. The solution, it seems to me, is not to focus on vouchers but on alternate ways to fund public education, substituting an income tax for the property tax.Unions that represent educators, like the 2.7 million member National Education Association, have lobbied against vouchers and for better public schools. While I support them in their cause, I wonder how many African American parents chafe at policies they feel don’t serve their children. Some will support candidates that push quality education “by whatever means necessary.”As objectionable as it is that the Congress should use D.C. children as guinea pigs in their voucher experiments, many parents will welcome the experiment. Vouchers leave too many children behind and raise all kinds of allocation and equity issues, but as long as they are perceived as an alternative to poor-quality public schools, they are likely to get a positive reception from some in the public. Until and unless those who support public schools are able to come up with a plan to improve them, vouchers will be attractive to many parents, including inner-city African American parents fed up with the frustrations of public education.
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