Blacks Go to War for School Choice

Published December 1, 1998

Attacking the Enemy

Charging the teacher labor unions with blocking every meaningful attempt to reform failing public schools and with being “perpetrators of educational genocide,” the national president of the Samaritan Project, Bishop Earl W. Jackson, launched a national effort to organize black ministers and parents in support of school choice.

In a letter delivered in October to National Education Association President Bob Chase and American Federation of Teachers president Sandra Feldman, Jackson requested a meeting with the two trade union leaders and demanded that they “stop blocking school choice and ‘Let Our Children Go!'”

“In spite of school choice successes in Houston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and other cities, the NEA and AFT have sought to undermine every effort to give parents choice,” said Jackson. “They have promised reform, but the only reform they are interested in is what gives more power to their unions,” he added, noting millions of dollars of union dues are spent “to further their political agenda.”

In his letter to the two union leaders, Bishop Jackson sets forth nine specific requests, including:

  • Stop paying black organizations such as the NAACP to oppose parental choice in education;
  • Spend the millions of dollars from teachers to ensure that American schoolchildren are top-ranked in reading, math and science skills;
  • Explain to the American people, in an open debate, why parental choice in education is contrary to their interests.

“You have supported a woman’s right to ‘choose’ abortion,” noted Jackson, “but you oppose parents’ right to choose where to educate their children.”

The Samaritan Project, based in Chesapeake, Virginia, is dedicated to solving America’s social ills through faith, personal responsibility, and racial reconciliation. A top priority of the organization is saving the future of America’s minority and low-income children through genuine education reforms.
Samaritan Project

Building a Grassroots Army

To show lawmakers that African-Americans support school vouchers, a grassroots coalition in Philadelphia has already collected 20,000 signatures from residents and hoped to collect up to 30,000 by the end of November to present to the 13 state legislators who represent the city. Most of the legislators–12 black and one Latino–oppose school choice, which is a top priority for newly re-elected GOP Gov. Tom Ridge.

Over the past few months, the City-Wide African American Grassroots Coalition for School Choice has deployed more than 150 people to collect signatures throughout the city, according to Walter Palmer, a spokesperson for the group and chairman of the Palmer Foundation. On November 5, City-Wide was one of several members of the multi-racial Philadelphia Coalition for Educational Reform and School Choice, which held a school choice rally in Philadelphia.

“We want to dispel the myth that African-Americans don’t support school choice,” Palmer told the Philadelphia Inquirer. He said that when poor African-Americans live in a neighborhood with an inferior public school, they are “trapped” because they do not have the money to send their children to a private school. On the other hand, most whites and those with higher incomes already have a choice.

“If you’re white and blocking the door, that’s racism,” Palmer told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “If you’re black and blocking the door, that’s elitism.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
November 6, 1998

Defending the Beachhead

Former Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools Howard Fuller vigorously defended the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program against a highly critical New York Times editorial that parroted both the phrasing and the objections used by the teacher unions to stir up opposition to school choice programs.

The Times contended that choice supporters “have given up on the ideals of public education”; that choice programs do little to improve public schools; that they “divert,” “funnel,” or “siphon off” public money to subsidize private and religious schools; and that they “harm” the children left behind.

“The Times essentially argues that public schools have an indefinite entitlement to taxpayer support, regardless of results,” said Fuller, a professor at Milwaukee’s Marquette University. “The complete absence of accountability in such thinking explains why nearly three decades of real spending growth in the Milwaukee Public Schools have failed to produce educational effectiveness.”

The November 11 newspaper editorial, noted Fuller, failed to mention how choice had positively affected low-income students–primarily African-American and Hispanic students with low levels of academic performance:

  • significant academic gains among Milwaukee choice students;
  • positive initial results for students in New York City’s private choice schools;
  • increased school-parent communications and parental satisfaction.

“Most voucher supporters hope that expanded options for low-income parents will strengthen public schools, making them more accountable to the majority of students who will remain in those schools,” says Fuller, responding to what he calls the Times‘ “insulting assertion” that most choice advocates “have given up on the ideals of public education.” In fact, the broad coalition of choice supporters in Milwaukee includes citizens of all races and income levels who have worked for decades for better public schools.

“The post-secondary experience in America refutes directly each argument the Times offers against choice at the K-12 level,” adds Fuller. With a multitude of tax-funded programs supporting choice among public and private colleges, “the indisputable result is the world’s strongest system of higher education.”
New York Times
November 11, 1998

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.