Civil Rights

Fight Over School Choice, Vouchers Heats Up Along The Campaign Trail

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Delores Justice is bubbling with excitement. The 65-year-old administrative assistant at the State Department is reading the report card of her grandson Christian Kennedy, whom she has reared since birth.

She's dedicated her life to preparing Christian to "stand on his own and have a good life," and the piece of paper in her hand tells her she's succeeding. He earned straight A's in his first semester as a freshman at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., a school he can attend thanks to her hard work and help from a private education voucher.

School choice has become an issue politicians can't avoid. Congress has faced it in various forms since the Republicans took over in 1994.

In 1997, it passed a limited voucher program for residents of the nation's capital, where few students perform to grade level despite per-pupil spending of $9,123. President Clinton vetoed it. The Supreme Court, which so far has declined to hear a voucher case, may soon take one.

Last December, a federal judge in Ohio declared Cleveland's program unconstitutional. The case is on appeal, but could work its way up to the high court. And it may very well become the defining educational issue in this year's presidential race.

Polls show education is on the minds of voters and each major Republican candidate favors some form of choice. It's already playing out in the primaries.

At the Democratic debate at Harlem's Apollo Theater on President's Day, Time's Tamala Edwards noted that 60% of African Americans support vouchers.

"Why should the parents here have to keep their kids in public schools because they don't have the financial resources that you do?" she asked Vice President Al Gore, noting that Gore sends his own son to the elite and private Sidwell Friends school, not to one of Washington's public schools.

CNN's Jeff Greenfield pointed out that the most strident opponents of vouchers are the two teachers unions, which happen to supply one in nine delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

"Why shouldn't these parents conclude that the Democratic Party's opposition to choice is an example of supporting a special interest rather than their interest?" he asked.

Gore, who in December dismissed vouchers as a "tiny little down payment on tuition," claimed vouchers would be a "historic mistake by draining money away from public schools." Instead, he said he'd like to see "revolutionary improvements to our public schools, not gradual improvements."

Democrats' opposition to vouchers may soon exact a political toll. As both publicly and privately funded voucher programs have sprouted in cities across America, support has grown. And academic studies, on balance, show they work.

A study released Monday by Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government found that black voucher recipients entering Washington's private schools in the second to fifth grade outperformed their peers in public schools by 6 percentile points in math and 2 percentile points in reading, after only seven months. In Dayton, Ohio, children gained 7 percentile points in math and 5 percentile points in reading.

"If the initial findings from Dayton and D.C. hold up over time, vouchers for students beginning in elementary school may help eliminate the black-white test-score gap," said the study's co-author, Paul E. Peterson.

With such results, parents, along with urban ministers, local civil rights leaders and even a former public school superintendent, are joining free-market minded conservatives in pushing vouchers.

The debate is rapidly transforming from one about "efficiency" and "competition" to one about civil rights.

It's a shift from a "market model" to an "opportunity model," says New York University professor Joseph Viteritti, author of "Choosing Equality: School Choice, the Constitution, and Civil Society."

Even Christopher Edley, a Harvard law professor and adviser to both Clinton and Gore, speaks of the potential for the voucher issue to hurt Democrats.

It's not hard to see why.

Polls consistently find strong African-American support for vouchers. The annual poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based think tank, found 60% of African Americans supported vouchers in May 1999, a 25% gain over 1996. And some 71% of African Americans with children support vouchers. This makes sense, considering that more than a third of these parents think the schools in their community are getting worse.

These sentiments are slowly working their way up through old-line civil rights groups.

Urban League President Hugh Price opposes vouchers. But T. Willard Fair, who heads the Greater Urban League of Miami, is all for them.

"There's nothing more important to us in terms of our civil rights than to be able to have a proper education," said Fair, who supports Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's plan, which offers vouchers to students attending the worst public schools.

The NAACP opposes vouchers. But it had to pressure Colorado Springs chapter President Willie Breazell into resigning after he wrote an op-ed supporting school choice.

Former Democratic Congressman Floyd Flake, who quit Congress to focus on his Queens church and social service center, is a voucher proponent. So too is former Milwaukee Public School superintendent and community activist Howard Fuller.

That growing support hasn't swayed opponents.

Just listen to how Carole Shields, then-president of the People for the American Way, responded to December's court ruling that threatened to take away the vouchers that send 3,721 low-income Cleveland children to private schools. "Taxpayer dollars should be put to use in the public schools, where they belong, and not be used to subsidize someone's religion," Shields said.

But with vouchers' rising popularity, Democrats may have to answer more tough questions like the one NBC's Tim Russert put to Gore last December. Asked Russert, "Why don't those poor, minority moms with their kids, who could not possibly deal with the chaos of public school, deserve a break?"

"I think they do deserve a break," Gore responded, and then talked about his ten-year plan for "truly revolutionary improvements" that did not include school choice.

In the end, even voucher opponents agree, rhetoric won't be enough.

"You've got desperate kids and families," Harvard's Edley, who considers vouchers "snake oil," told the National Journal. "One side is offering vouchers as an escape, and the other is offering three-year plans. That's not much of a contest."