Vouchers and the "New" Black Leadership
by Tom Grayman, Tue Apr 18, 2006 at 02:12:26 PM EDT
Tom Grayman is a pollster, publisher of The Intelligence Squad website, and author of the book Ghosts of Florida: Making Elections Fair for Blacks.
An article in yesterday's New York Times tells of how school vouchers are a hot-button issue in the Newark, NJ mayoral race. Cory Booker, part of so-called "new" wave of black leadership is for them, while his chief opponent, Deputy Mayor and "old guard" candidate Ronald Rice, is against them.
Vouchers may be the policy issue generating the greatest schism within the black community today. Polls show something like 60% of blacks support private school vouchers in theory, though that support drops to a minority when respondents are forced to consider the ramifications (typically a decrease in public school funding)of a private school voucher program. Blacks living in districts in which the public schools underperform see such vouchers as a chance at an escape for their children. Others, particularly those without school-age children see them as an attack on public schools.
Old-schoolers like Newark's Rice and the Democratic Party establishment attack voucher-friendly candidates like Booker as tools of a white conservative movement to undermine public schools. That's an unfair jab (though not unexpected considering that Booker has shown a taste for associating with white conservative institutions): Booker almost certainly genuinely believes that vouchers will help the black children of Newark, whether they are backed by white conservatives or not. But out of deference to the feeling that vouchers suck funds out of the public schools in which the overwhelming majority of Newark's black students will continue to be educated, voucher program or no, Booker has dialed back his full-throated support. He now talks of a voucher program funded not with direct tax dollars, but with private contributions spurred by tax incentives. In his vision, this plan would not divert any funds away from Newark's public schools (guess the incentives will come from some other budget line). It's not clear, however, how stable a program like that can be if it is based entirely on private contributions.
Now look at what's happening in Omaha, Nebraska. The state legislature voted last week to divide the school system into 3 districts which will be heavily defined by race: one mostly white, one mostly black, one heavily Hispanic.
While this likely strikes most of us here as shockingly backward, it is worth noting that one of the strongest proponents of the plan was the legislature's sole black member, Ernie Chambers. And Chambers is an old-school ultra-liberal.
To him, the segregation plan will send greater financial resources to the black schools in his district (assuming each new subdistrict receives one-third of the city's funds) and allow for more localized control than the current citywide school board does.
In many municipalities around the US, blacks already attend de facto segregated public schools, as a result geography and/or personal finances. In many cases, the black schools in those locations do not receive funds equal to those of the predominantly white ones of the same city/county/state. In that context, some black community and government leaders are starting to decide that "seperate" -- as long it is financially "equal" -- may not be such a bad thing.
So in one case you have renegade black leaders lobbying for tax dollars to be used to send a handful of poor black kids to the same schools as wealthier whites, and on the other hand you have renegade black leaders looking to have the tax dollars flow to the black schools by deciding officially not to try to enter the more exclusive white school zones.
Escaping bad schools or grabbing more resources and control over them. Both approaches are "new" and at the same time, old. Both approaches are controversial. Both have severe limitations. And both approaches have African-American leaders as proponents.
I don't claim to have a definitive answer as to which, if either, is right for African-American schoolchildren. But I do know that we should always be willing to consider and evaluate sincere proposals for improving public education, regardless of the labels slapped on the proponents of such plans by their opponents or the media.