"African Americans are generally fed up with the education status quo."
Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) is right on that count. Unfortunately, the rest of his Thursday morning speech at the National Education Association headquarters in Washington, D.C., revealed how woefully out of touch he is with the black community when it comes to fixing the problem.
The NEA, the nation's largest teachers union, was hosting a symposium to unveil a new book from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a D.C.-based group that has conducted social research on minorities since 1970. While the study focused on the growing political divide between young and old generations within the African-American community, it also documented another major disconnect: Young black voters want school vouchers. Jackson and his union friends don't.
According to the study, "a large majority (69 percent) of black elected officials oppose vouchers, while a large majority (60 percent) of the black public support vouchers." Even worse for Jackson, who hopes to be the voice of the young black community, the study revealed that "there was what can accurately be described as overwhelming support for vouchers (approximately 70 percent) in the three youngest age cohorts, i.e., those under 50 years."
Jackson, the 36-year old son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, entered Congress in December 1995. He is unmoved by the numbers in the study. Indeed, the graduate of the elite D.C. private school St. Albans made no bones about where he stood on school choice. "[Vouchers have] the potential to bankrupt the public education system...[and] they are going to leave millions of children behind who are still in separate but unequal public schools," he told the appreciative crowd. In fact, Jackson thinks market-oriented solutions are almost always misguided: "Devolution of the federal government and turning to privatization are the wrong paths... The basic material problems that disproportionately affect us... ultimately can only be solved through federal effort."
Jackson's union-friendly solution drew a chorus of hurrahs from the faithful. He said only a constitutional amendment can guarantee every child in America an equal, high-quality education. Sounds good, doesn't it? Sadly, he doesn't seem to know exactly what it means. Was he talking about equal funding, equal scores on standardized tests, equal numbers of computers, or some other measure? "Every generation will decide what high quality is," he told me while rushing out of the meeting and shaking hands with his NEA supporters. "Rather than arguing means, I am going to argue the fundamental rights issue."
If Jackson and his NEA supporters are out of touch with the increasingly pro-voucher black community, the ramifications on national politics could be enormous. In the last presidential election, 9 out of 10 black voters went Democrat; for at least four decades, blacks have been one of the core groups of that party.
But even if blacks desert the Democrats over vouchers, it doesn't mean the Republicans will necessarily pick up their votes, says Mikel Holt, the author of 1999's Not Yet "Free At Last": The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement, which explores the uphill battles Milwaukee parents have fought to establish and defend what's called "the Milwaukee Experiment," the nation's most progressive school-choice program. (Click here for a look at a Harvard study on the program.)
Holt is editor-in-chief of the Milwaukee Community Journal, Wisconsin's largest African-American newspaper. Just this week, Holt saw a coalition of union representatives and their anti-voucher cohorts push to slash funds for the Milwaukee program, which 90 percent of eligible blacks there support.
The program gives about $5,500 a year to the parents of 10,000 low-income students to spend at local private schools -- even religious ones. Although the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the system in 1998, Badger State Democrats have consistently attacked it, both in the courts and the legislature. State senators, working with teacher union reps, are now on the verge of halving state funding in this year's budget and capping the number of children at current levels. Why? They say the program bleeds funds from the state education system.
Now that the NEA has gotten its way, the future of the kids involved remains uncertain. "We have 10,000 kids in limbo because the Democratic Party -- and those people say they love black folks so much -- the Democratic Party is trying to kill a program that is benefiting poor children," Holt says. Indeed, such attempts explain why Rep. Jackson got booed off the stage when he spoke against school choice in Milwaukee last year.
But Holt says he has no faith that Republicans on the national level will push vouchers, either. He notes that Milwaukee's voucher program was signed into law in the late '80s by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson, who is currently heading up the Bush administration's Dept. of Health and Human Services. Thompson's support for vouchers, says Holt, was repaid by black voters who gave him 40 percent of their votes after he signed the plan into law.
Yet the GOP seems uninterested in going to the mat for vouchers, despite their avowed interest in courting the black vote. Holt complains that the modest $50 million voucher proposal that died in a Senate committee this week was typical of the GOP's lack of initiative and understanding of black concerns.
If Holt is any indication, the school voucher issue may end up pushing blacks away from either major party. When it comes to the future of school choice, Holt says he's putting his hope elsewhere. "I'll put it this way," he says. "I think the best opportunity for a non-Democrat [in Milwaukee] to win would be as an Independent. Apparently, the Republicans don't know how to play it out."