The Split Over School Vouchers

Why black Dems in D.C. are defying national groups to back a pilot program

Virginia Walden-Ford, a black single mother of three, felt helpless as she watched her 14-year-old, William, fall in with the wrong crowd at Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C. It was more self-preservation than rebellion, her son explained; his new friends were protecting him in the violence-plagued hallways. Salvation for William arrived when neighbors and relatives pooled enough money for nearly half the $5,000 tuition at Archbishop Carroll High School, a nearby private school. An archdiocesan scholarship made up the rest.

William graduated with top grades in 2000, and the experience got Walden-Ford thinking: "While we are working hard to reform the public schools, why not give other parents the same options?" She went on to form the 3,000-member DC Parents for School Choice. And now they're backing a Senate plan that would provide $13 million in federal money to D.C. parents -- enough to pay for $7,500 scholarships at area private schools for 1,700 low-income children chosen by lottery. A similar bill passed the House by one vote in mid-September, and an amended voucher bill has been gaining support in Senate debate.

Those prospects have made the nation's capital the latest arena for the debate over vouchers. They are also casting a spotlight on a widening fissure in the African-American community over what proponents now call "taxpayer-sponsored scholarships." For years, black leaders around the country, most of them Democrats, have been steadfast opponents of vouchers. But a growing number are frustrated by the slow pace of school reform. So they're signing up with GOP stalwarts to endorse vouchers for the worst urban schools. Joining them are such liberal voucher converts as Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.).

LOCAL BACKERS. The D.C. voucher bill in Congress has split the black community as never before. Stumping for a new law are Washington's popular mayor, Anthony A. Williams, D.C. Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and the chairman of the city council's education committee, Kevin P. Chavous -- black Democrats one and all. Meanwhile, D.C.'s Democratic delegate in the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton, remains fiercely opposed, as do most major civil rights organizations. "Vouchers are no substitute for a quality program for all," says the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, President of National Rainbow/Push Coalition. "It is a rope for a few rather than a net for all."

Proponents hope the support of some black leaders will add momentum to the stalled voucher movement. Nearly a decade after the effort got going, only Cleveland and Milwaukee have voucher programs that are similar to the D.C. scheme. President Bush and GOP leaders in Congress have been trying, with little success, to push a national voucher plan, or at least more experiments, ever since the Bushies took office.

Now conservatives are hoping their black allies will help undercut the criticism that vouchers are primarily a ploy by the Christian Right to get money for religious schools. Education Secretary Rod Paige joined Williams at a recent National Press Club speech on the D.C. bill, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) appeared with Williams at a press conference. Williams explains his pro-voucher position by comparing the city's schools to "a slow-moving train wreck" and linking the city's 50% dropout rate to its 200 homicides a year.

LIBERAL OBJECTIONS. Voucher advocates also have crafted a bill that blunts many of the traditional liberal objections. To counter criticism that vouchers divert money from public schools, the Senate would sweeten the $13 million earmarked for vouchers with an additional $26 million for D.C. public and charter schools. It also requires voucher students to take the same standardized tests that are mandated by the Federal No Child Left Behind Act for the public school system. In addition, private school teachers would be required to have college degrees. While several of Washington's elite private schools opted out of any such arrangement, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, quickly agreed to allow testing of voucher students in the Catholic schools, which make up a third of the area's private schools.

The stark economic and racial contrasts of Washington add fuel to the voucher controversy. The city's ruling elite, including those few members of the black middle class who haven't fled the city, almost always send their children to private schools. That has pushed the equity argument front and center. Writes Washington Post Columnist William Raspberry: "If choice is good for middle-class children, why is it bad for poor children who, without some sort of subsidy, may find themselves stuck in underperforming schools?"

Still, the new alliance between blacks and conservatives may go only so far. Williams and most other black converts to vouchers don't endorse the GOP's view of vouchers as a way to break teacher-union monopolies. Instead, black voucher supporters point out that the Senate bill narrowly targets poor families with children in schools designated as failing. "Why should the poor child not have the same access as the wealthy child?" asks Feinstein. Right now, no major black group is embracing vouchers. But if Congress makes Washington its first federal voucher pilot program and more local black leaders sign on to the idea, vouchers could be back on the national agenda.

By Paul Magnusson in Washington

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